Sunday, January 31, 2021


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) is probably the most comprehensive, and most successful, marine fishery conservation law in the world. Since the year 2000, it has been responsible for rebuilding 47 once-overfished stocks; other overfished stocks are well on their way to recovery.

Much of that success can be attributed to the fact that Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t merely give federal fishery managers the option of rebuilding overfished stocks; instead, it requires them to do so, and sets a firm deadline for achieving that goal. If a stock is found to be overfished or approaching an overfished condition, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must put a rebuilding plan into effect within two years. Once such a plan is in place, it must rebuild the stock in no more than 10 years, unless it is biologically impossible to do so, or the stock is managed pursuant to an international agreement. In any event, rebuilding must be completed in as short a time as possible, given the prevailing circumstances.

Yet Magnuson-Stevens hasn’t met with success in every fishery. Some remain stubbornly unwilling to rebuild. Many of those are located in New England, where the New England Fishery Management Council often adopts rebuilding plans that are insufficiently risk averse. While such management plans successfully limit the short-term hardships that fishermen would experience under more restrictive management regimes, they do long-term harm to the health of fish stocks.

As a result, historically important stocks such as Georges Bank cod, Gulf of Maine cod and Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder have remained overfished for many years, and show few signs of recovery. As such fish remain scarce, it is clear that the less risk averse plans didn’t avoid causing hardship to fishermen; by failing to rebuild badly depleted stocks, they instead forced fishermen to endure hardship over a much longer period of time, which has yet to come to an end.

But there is now hope that an end to such hardship might, just possibly, be in sight.

In late December 2020, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), chair of the House Natural Resources Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee, and Ed Case (D-HI), a subcommittee member, released the discussion draft of a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill. That draft contained a number of provisions that would strengthen the stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.

One of the provisions would make it easier for fisheries managers to determine whether a stock has, in fact, become overfished.

Currently, Magnuson-Stevens requires that all federal fishery management plans “specify objective and measurable criteria for identifying when the fishery to which the plan applies is overfished.” To satisfy that requirement, management plans will typically deem a stock to be overfished when its spawning stock biomass falls beneath a specified threshold, which is most often 50% of the biomass needed to produce maximum sustainable yield. Problems arise when scientists lack the data to calculate whether the criteria specified in the management plan have been met.

When that happens, scientists may not declare a stock overfished, even when they know that spawning stock biomass has declined sharply. Instead, as recently occurred in a stock assessment for Gulf of Maine winter flounder, they may only declare that “biomass based reference points cannot be determined and overfished status is unknown,” while also noting that both recreational and commercial landings have fallen sharply in recent decades, a long-term trend that could reflect declining abundance.

The discussion draft’s proposed language would allow fishery managers greater discretion, allowing them to declare a stock to be “overfished” if “the best available scientific information” suggests that is the case, even if clear criteria identifying when such stock is overfished is not available.

Yet the mere facts that a stock has been deemed to be overfished, and a rebuilding plan has been put in place, does not mean that such rebuilding plan will be successful. Gulf of Maine cod have been overfished since at least 2001, and probably for long before that, if the current criteria for gauging stock status had been applied in earlier assessments. The first rebuilding plan for Gulf of Maine cod was unsuccessful; the stock remained overfished. A second rebuilding plan, initiated in 2014, is supposed to rebuild the stock by 2024. But with the spawning stock biomass totaling only 3,838 metric tons, which is only somewhere between 6% and 9% of the rebuilding target, in 2018, it is very likely that the second rebuilding plan is going to fail as well.

If that happens, the NMFS will undoubtedly initiate a third rebuilding plan, which will probably look much like the two previous, unsuccessful rebuilding plans. It will undoubtedly try to balance mitigating the burdens placed on fishermen with the legal requirement that the rebuilding plan have at least a 50% probability of achieving its goals. If, under such new rebuilding plan, the stock didn’t make “adequate progress” toward its rebuilding goal, the NMFS would have to “immediately make revisions to achieve adequate progress,” but the rebuilding plan wouldn’t have to define what such “adequate progress” might look like.

The language proposed in the discussion draft would address those issues as well.

First, it would require every fishery management plan to “contain objective and measurable criteria for evaluating rebuilding progress.” Then, it would establish clear criteria that would signal to the NMFS that adequate progress was not being made.

The discussion draft’s proposed language states that

The Secretary [of Commerce] shall find a lack of adequate progress toward ending overfishing and rebuilding an affected fish stock if (i) the status of the stock is not improving sufficiently such that it becomes unlikely that the stock will be rebuilt during the rebuilding time period; (ii) the applicable fishing mortality rate or annual catch limits are exceeded, and the causes and rebuilding consequences of such exceedances have not been corrected; (iii) the rebuilding expectations are fundamentally changed due to new scientific information about the stock, and the new information indicates that the current rebuilding plan is inadequate to address the stock’s rebuilding needs; or (iv) for other reasons, as appropriate. [internal formatting deleted]

If such language was added to Magnuson-Stevens, the NMFS would not be able to let an overfished stock languish, or see overfishing occur, without taking the action needed to put such stock back on the path to rebuilding by the scheduled date.

If, despite the agency’s efforts, a stock still remains overfished on the scheduled rebuilding date, a new rebuilding plan would have to be prepared. But given the failure of the original rebuilding plan, any such new rebuilding plan would be required to have at least a 75% probability of successfully rebuilding the overfished stock.

Such a provision would make any successor rebuilding plan more restrictive than the original, failed plan. It would make it more likely that other fish stocks will not share the fate of the Gulf of Maine cod, which will almost certainly have to undergo a third consecutive rebuilding plan before it has any realistic chance of being restored.

Magnuson-Stevens is already a very good fisheries conservation and management law. But changes to its stock rebuilding provisions, as provided in the discussion draft, would make it even better. If such changes are made, species such as Atlantic cod and winter flounder, which have so far fallen through the cracks of then management system, would finally have a reasonable chance of being rebuilt.

Fishermen across the nation would do well to see those changes become law.


This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at



Thursday, January 28, 2021



On Wednesday, February 3, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will review the draft Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  It is very likely, although not absolutely certain, that after such review, the Management Board will approve the Public Information Document for public comment, thus formally kicking off the process that will eventually lead to changes—perhaps very significant changes—in the way striped bass will be managed.

Those changes could have a very serious impact on the future health of the striped bass stock.

Right now, it’s very hard to predict what that impact will be, as there are two competing factions on the Management Board, and the future of the striped bass stock, and the striped bass fishery, will depend on which of those factions prevails.

One faction is composed of Management Board members who want to better assure the long-term health of the striped bass fishery.  They recognize that the current management approach failed to prevent the striped bass stock from becoming overfished, and experiencing overfishing, once again, after being rebuilt following its collapse in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  In general, they support science-based management, more effective regulation of striped bass fisheries, and ending some of the current abuses that exist in the management process.

The other faction, which is centered in the three states of New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, is less concerned with the long-term health of the striped bass stock, and far more concerned with the short-term economic well-being of their fishing industries.  It generally seeks laxer regulations and higher landings, while shunning any accountability for excessive recreational harvest.  Members of the faction have expressed a willingness to change the reference points used to gauge stock health, even though doing so would permanently reduce striped bass abundance and increase the risk that the stock could decline to dangerously low levels.

So far, it seems like the wrong folks are winning.

Late last July, a “work group” created by the Management Board issued a report suggesting what the new amendment ought to address.  The work group was reasonably balanced, with three members from the usually conservation-minded New England states and three from New Jersey, Maryland, and the Potomac River fisheries commissions, jurisdictions that have historically prioritized harvest over the health of the stock.  

Given that the striped bass stock is overfished, and that the recent management action taken to reduce landings had only a 41 percent probability of reducing fishing mortality to the target level, it would have been reasonable to expect that the work group would have prioritized rebuilding the stock, and adopting measures to prevent overfishing and prevent the stock from being overfished once again (assuming that the stock is successfully rebuilt this time).

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, the work group emphasized three factors—management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency—as “themes” that should guide the Amendment 7 drafting process.

“Management stability” would promote maintaining consistent regulations over a period of years, which sounds nice on its face.  However, the Management Board’s history shows that it is already far too willing to promote such stability at the cost of the striped bass stock; perhaps the best example of that is when it sat on its hands in 2011, maintaining “management stability” even after a stock assessment update warned that, under any foreseeable recruitment scenario, the stock would become overfished by 2017 if fishing mortality wasn’t reduced.  As it turned out, the stock became overfished even more quickly than the assessment update predicted, as fishing mortality had been higher than managers believed at the time.

It’s hard to imagine building even more opportunity for inaction into Amendment 7, but that’s where the work group would seem to be headed.

A similar comment could be made about “flexibility” which, in the fisheries management context, is merely a euphemism for taking no action, even when the management plan requires that something be done. 

But the Management Board is already experienced at doing that, too.

Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass explicitly states that

“If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [no more than 10 years]. [emphasis added]”

Amendment 6 also states that

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [no more than 10 years]. [emphasis added]”

Both of those passages are pretty clear about what the Management Board “must” do if the specified triggers are tripped.  Yet, when the 2013 benchmark stock assessment revealed that the biomass had fallen below target for two consecutive years, and that the fishing mortality had risen above target as well, the Management Board did absolutely nothing to rebuild the stock within the specified time.

Instead, it took comfort in the advice of Michael Waine, then the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, who advised

“Management Trigger 2 [sic] in Amendment 6 says that you need to rebuild the SSB back to its target over a specified timeframe that should not exceed 10 years.  I think that there is sort of a combination of things happening.  The board is acting to reduce F.  Through that action we see the projection showing that SSB will start increasing toward its target, but we’re uncomfortable with projecting out far enough to tell you when it will reach its target because the further on the projections we go the more uncertainty is involved.  Therefore, I think the trend is to go back towards the target, but we can’t tell you that exactly how quickly that’s going to happen.”

As a practical matter, Waine advised the Management Board to ignore an explicit requirement of the management plan, advice that the Board was happy to follow.

Five years later, after the latest stock assessment found that the striped bass stock was overfished, the second provision kicked in.  This time, Max Appelman, who had replaced Waine as Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, did what he was supposed to do and reminded the Management Board of its rebuilding obligation, saying that

“the ten year clock began in May when the information [that the stock was overfished] was presented to the Board.”

But the Management Board roundly ignored him, deciding to move forward with Amendment 7 instead of a rebuilding plan.

Given that the Management Board knowingly flouted two supposedly mandatory provisions of the management plan over the course of only five years, it’s frightening to think that the work group believes that giving the Board even more “flexibility” to do nothing is a good idea.

Fortunately, the work group only advises the Management Board, which will make the final decisions on Amendment 7. 

And perhaps the first, and one of the most important, decisions that the Management Board ought to make is to slow down.

If the Public Information Document is approved for public comment next week, the odds are that the public comment period will end sometime before the Management Board’s May meeting.  That means  either that public hearings will have to be held, putting people at risk of contracting COVID-19 before they have a reasonable expectation of being vaccinated against the disease, or comments will have to be taken in webinars that, given the number of responses striped bass amendments normally generate, will probably severely limit the opportunities for anglers to be heard.

Neither of those is a good alternative.

Delay will also provide time for some very important information to be provided to the Management Board, which would inform the Amendment 7 process.

One of those would be an update to the stock assessment.  Such an update was originally scheduled for 2021, so that managers could get some idea of how the striped bass stock has reacted to the regulations imposed, for the first time, in 2020.  But because of COVID-19, and its impacts on the Marine Recreational Information Program’s in-person angler intercepts, there are still no estimates of recreational landings and discards for 2020, and the stock assessment update has been delayed until 2022, when 2021 data will hopefully be available.

In addition, there are two studies currently being conducted by Massachusetts which are very relevant to Amendment 7.  One is probably going to provide a lot of important new information about striped bass release mortality.  The other is a genetic study that will help managers understand where the bass that migrate into New England are spawned.

Drafting a document that is as important to the striped bass’ future as Amendment 7, in a time when COVID-19 has not yet abated, with no recent recreational catch data, no updated assessment, and without the results of the two Massachusetts studies, seems foolish.

Better to wait a year or so, and so have the information needed to get everything right.

Dr. Michael Armstrong, a top fisheries manager for the state of Massachusetts, supported delay at last August’s Management Board meeting.  He said

“We have a lot to talk about, particularly reference points and rebuilding, and all that.  We need an enormous amount of public input.  I’m looking at us having two or three Board meeting, one or two public hearings, through this kind of [webinar] venue.

“Having recently gone through it at home, here for the public hearing, I wouldn’t call it a success.  It is very, very difficult to present a serious subject and get feedback.  I do think this Amendment needs to be postponed…

“Boy, I think it is irresponsible for us to try and get public input while under this [pandemic] condition.  We’re looking at maybe next May meeting in person, maybe.  I would say the better bet is a year from now.  I would vote to postpone this indefinitely, and not do any serious work, in terms of public hearing…

“I think we ought to get a look at what is going on with the assessment next year, before we really move forward with an amendment.  We’re flying blind at this point, and we’re flying without appropriate public input…  [emphasis added]” 

It was a very rational argument.  Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fishery manager, concurred, as did John McMurray, New York’s legislative proxy, Dennis Abbott, the legislative proxy from New Hampshire, and even Tom Fote, New Jersey’s governor’s appointee.  But it failed to convince a majority of the Management Board, so the Amendment process moved forward.

Thus, on Wednesday, the Management Board will review the Public Information Document for a second time.  And then it needs to make a choice.

Does it send the Public Information Document out for public hearing, knowing full well that, in the age of COVID-19, the public response will likely be muted and haphazard, and also knowing that it lacks current information on the state of the stock, recreational landings, and discard mortality?

Does it decide, as Dr. Armstrong characterized things, to fly blind?

Or does it act responsibly, recognize that it is better to do things right than to do things quickly, and delay work on Amendment 7 until the pandemic abates and needed information is finally available?

Given the ASMFC’s penchant for doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, I suspect it will choose a quick shot in the dark over waiting to be enlightened by new information.

I hope that I’m wrong.

Sunday, January 24, 2021



The Encyclopedia of Biodiversity tells us that

“Marine ecosystems may be defined as major units of ecological function in the marine environment.  Ecosystems are communities of organisms and their physical, chemical, and geological environment—distinct assemblages of species coevolved with a particular environment over long periods of evolutionary history…In comparison to ecosystems on land, ocean ecosystems have less clearly defined boundaries, a greater variety of major taxonomic divisions of organisms, and a long evolutionary history that predated colonization of land.”

Through many millions of years of evolutionary trial and error, geological change at the continental level, and shifting oceanographic regimes, current marine ecosystems have developed to most efficiently utilize the resources available in each particular region.  From the lowest trophic level, fed by sunlight and the chemicals gleaned from a fertile sea, to the largest sharks, bony fishes, and whales, all are bound together in a complex web that has been optimized and perfected by time.

At least, that’s how it was until people came along.

Since then, marine ecosystems have been disrupted. 

Thoughtless removal of forage fish, large predators, and various demersal species, as well as equally thoughtless development that degraded fishes’ spawning and nursery habitats and polluted once-productive estuaries, has tattered food webs and depleted fish stocks.  Some species are no longer found in parts of their former range; others remain rare visitors in waters where they once were abundant.

It is only appropriate that people now try to reverse some of the damage that they caused, although that’s often not easy to do. 

Recently, a South African biologist decided that he wanted to duplicate the gear and sampling protocols used by another scientist working more than 100 years ago, in order to make a true comparison of the fish that are present today, and those present around the turn of the 20th Century, when the earlier researcher conducted surveys on South Africa’s Agulhas Bank.

The contemporary scientist spent over a year in preparation.  To minimize the impacts of gear on the results of his study, he had a net made out of old-fashioned tarred rope, instead of today’s modern synthetics.  He also went out of his way to find a boat rigged as a side-trawler, a less efficient design than the stern trawlers that dominate today’s fishery. By using a boat and net that emulated those used in the surveys made over a century ago, he could be confident that any differences in the fish that he caught compared to those caught in the earlier surveys would reflect real changes in the Agulhas Bank ecosystem, and not merely differences attributable to the gear used.

And there were startling differences in the composition of the catch.

The original surveys, made between 1897 and 1906 found an abundance of fish known as kabeljou (Argyrosomus japonicus), a large member of the family Sciaenidae, which includes drum, weakfish and other croakers, that reaches more than six feet in length.  A century ago, the Agulhas Bank also held many of the closely-related kob (Argyrosomus hololepidotus), another weakfish relative that can approach 200 pounds in weight (the terms “kabeljou” and “kob” are used to describe both fish), the much smaller panga seabream (Pterogymnus laniarius), and East Coast sole (Austroglossus pectoralis), a type of flounder.

But when the Agulhas Bank was surveyed over a century later, the fish mix was completely different.  There were no kabeljou caught at all.  Instead, 85 percent of the fish caught in the new survey consisted of gurnards belonging to the family Triglidae, which we’d call “sea robins” here in New York; the same spiny dogfish (Squalis acanthias) that we catch on the East Coast of the United States;  Cape horse mackerel (Trachurus capensis) which, despite its name, is actually a small member of the jack family (Carangidae); shallow-water Cape hake (Merluccius capensis); and white sea catfish (Galeichthys feliceps).

Those five fish, taken collectively, made up only 3 percent of the fish caught in the surveys performed a century ago.

Obviously, something had changed.

The biologist who conducted the recent study, Dr. Jock Currie, concluded that fishing activities were directly responsible for the big difference in the fish present on Agulhas Bank.  As reported in Smithsonian magazine,

“To explain the difference, Currie says, you need to consider how the Agulhas Bank itself has been changed.  The main species of the historical catches are associated with reef habitats, whereas a far greater proportion of the modern catches prefer sand or mud habitats.  This indicates that trawling probably changed the seafloor, which in turn led to changes in fish communities.  ‘In seems obvious in retrospect,’ says Currie.

“If not for the historical data and meticulous repeat survey, this insight would have been obscured forever.  ‘We know so little of how our oceans were a couple of hundred years before,’ says Currie.  ‘But to know where we want to go in the future, we need to understand our history.”

Unfortunately, knowing the history of the Agulhas Bank ecosystem probably won’t help scientists to restore the damage that the trawlers wrought; it is likely too severe to repair.  However, people can, and in some cases are trying to, undo less severe insults to ocean ecosystems.

The discussion draft of a possible Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act reauthorization bill includes language to protect forage fish and increase the likelihood of rebuilding overfished stocks; it also includes strengthened language that would better protect essential fish habitat.  Efforts to remove dams that block anadromous fishes’ access to historical spawning grounds and to prevent polluted runoff from entering vulnerable estuaries also hold hope for the future.

And, thanks to the conservation provisions of theMagnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, many once-overfishedstocks are either fully rebuilt or well on their way to recovery, and many fishstocks are no longer experiencing overfishing.

On the other hand, there are still people out there who care more about their own interests, and their own convenience, than they do about maintaining, or restoring, healthy marine ecosystems; such people are still arrogant enough to believe that they can improve on eons of evolution and engineer a marine ecosystem that will remain stable while catering to their particular needs.

That’s the kind of thinking that leads anglers to kill so-called “trash fish”—sea robins, dogfish, toadfish and such—when they catch them, instead of returning them to the water, out of some sort of twisted belief that by doing so, they’re improving the fishing by removing “bait stealers” and “pests” from the ocean. 

The worst example of that sort of thing that I ever heard was back in the late 1970s or maybe very early 1980s, when baymen were still allowed to haul seine for striped bass in the waters off Long Island’s “Hamptons.”  The striped bass stock had already collapsed, but the baymen still deployed their seines, catching a lot of different fish, but not many bass unless they happened to set around a migrating school. 

Back then, there were a lot of big bluefish around—15-pound fish were pretty common, and some went over 20—and one day a surfcaster noticed that they baymen were picking the few striped bass out of their catch, but leaving scores of big bluefish to suffocate on the beach.  So he started grabbing the dying blues and returning them to the water, at which point one of the baymen came over and, in a somewhat threatening manner, told him to let all the blues die, because “We can’t get anything for them, and if you put them back, we’ll only end up catching them again tomorrow.”

Today, after seeing so many of our fish stocks—including bluefish—decline, it’s hard to imagine that such thinking goes on, yet it does.

I was reminded of that once again while reading a piece in The Palm Beach Post, which reported that recreational fishermen and charter boat captains are complaining that sharks are eating the fish that they hook, and that they’ve asked Florida state regulators for relief from regulations that limit their ability to target the sharks.

The article notes that great hammerhead, sandbar, and dusky sharks are among the species most often blamed for attacking hooked fish, and that

“it will be 50 to 80 years before sharks such as the sandbar and dusky rebuild their populations after being decimated by overfishing.”

Yet the paper also reports fishermen complaining that

“When we say that there are too many sharks and the population has exploded, they say they have no data.  But the same people will say that the data shows sharks are getting wiped out,”

while also reporting that a scientist from Florida Atlantic University, who has actual expertise in shark biology, noted that

“I’ve heard about people saying they are ready to harvest as many sharks as they can within legal limits just to get rid of them.”

The same biologist, disagreeing with the fishermen’s antipathy toward sharks, observed that

“A lot of fishermen are complaining, but, sadly, I think it could be good news because it means that the shark populations are becoming more healthy and robust.  As species rebound, you are going to see more interactions.”

Yet “more interactions” with sharks is just what the fishermen want to avoid.  They complain that

“The situation is horrific, with probably over 100 hooked [yellowfin tuna] killed in a day by sharks,”

but see no similar problem when the tuna are killed by fishermen, or when fishermen kill the sharks that take their tuna.  

Unlike the scientist quoted above, they’d much rather see an out-of-balance marine ecosystem, which lacks a full complement of its apex predators, then an ecosystem that’s restoring itself and returning to some semblance of what it had earlier evolved to be.  They fail to acknowledge their role of interlopers in that ecosystem.  In their self-centered arrogance, they feel that they have a greater right to the fish than the sharks do, even though Homo sapiens first appeared on the Earth a mere 200,000 or so years ago, while sharks have been swimming in this planet’s oceans for nearly 400 million years. 

Before people begin trying to engineer marine ecosystems by removing or reducing the numbers of species that they dislike, find inconvenient, or compete with, and causing more damage to the integrity of those ecosystems along the way, they would be well advised to first do everything in their power to undo the damage that we have already done.

That should keep everyone busy for a very long time.






Thursday, January 21, 2021



About two months ago, I wrote a blog about a conservation movement that’s been nicknamed “30x30,” which seeks to have 30 percent of lands, inland waters, and ocean protected by the year 2030.  From a fisheries perspective, that means an expansion of marine protected areas.

Marine protected areas are always a hot topic, as they restrict access to, and harvest from, waters where fishing had previously occurred.  There is generally substantial outcry and public opposition when an MPA is proposed.  Some of that outcry comes from fishermen who just resist change, and don’t want to see any encroachment on their ability to access the entire expanse of their local waters.  Some comes from the fact that, to many fishermen, the term “Marine Protected Area” means an area of ocean that is completely closed off to commercial and recreational fishing.

But that latter belief isn’t necessarily true.  The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has adopted the definition of “protected area” used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which merely states that a “protected area” is

“A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”

Protected areas, including marine protected areas, exist solely to conserve natural resources.  Conservation doesn’t always require complete prohibitions on fishing and/or other outdoor activities.  And the above definition makes it clear that conservation is supposed to be accomplished in “association” with “cultural values,” which in most cases would include the values associated with fishing activities.

That definition of “protected area” would militate against the creation of an MPA that advances conservation but, at least to the extent possible, does not also support the cultural values associated with fishing.  While there may be places where a total prohibition on fishing might be required to achieve a particular conservation goal, properly-designed MPAs should usually be able to promote conservation while allowing some level of fishing activity.  In doing that, they can also provide significant benefits to fishermen.

Right now, such a well thought-out MPA is being developed in the Florida Keys.

The area in question is called the “Western Dry Rocks,” and lies about 10 miles southwest of Key West.  It's small, only about one square mile in size, but is an important spawning site for many different species of snapper and grouper, along with a number of other, unrelated, reef fish.  It is also a popular destination for Key West’s charter fishing fleet, and as both biologists and fishermen have learned to their sorrow, fishing on important spawning aggregations of fish can do a lot of harm, regardless of other management measures that might be put in place to conserve them.

Protecting spawning aggregations, on the other hand, has historically paid benefits, and led to stock rebuilding.

Western Dry Rocks is a particularly important spawning area, not only because of the number of species that aggregate there, but also because the currents that pass through the area pick up fish eggs and larvae and carry them along the Florida Keys and up to the southern Florida mainland, helping to maintain fish populations along the way.

Thus, there is a compelling conservation argument for including the Western Dry Rocks in an MPA.

The State of Florida is proposing to close the one square mile area around Western Dry Rocks to all fishing during the months of May and June, which is the peak spawning season for mutton, gray, and yellowtail snapper, as well as for permit.  Extending the area closure to April and July would protect all four species throughout their entire spawning period, so Florida is seeking stakeholder input on both a two-month and a four-month closure.

Grouper tend to spawn earlier in the year—January through April—when the fishing season for them is already closed, although one species of grouper, the scamp, spawns from January through June, so would also benefit from the closure.

Catch and release fishing isn’t an option during the spawning period.  While most people who fish for snapper and grouper are seeking fish to take home, anglers do pursue permit just for sport.  However, research indicates that 39 percent of the permit hooked at Western Dry Rocks are eaten by sharks, a level of fishing mortality that could do real harm to a spawning aggregation.

Thus, there is a good argument for prohibiting fishing at Western Dry Rocks during the spawn.  The spawning aggregations need to be protected, and due to the abundant sharks, nothing less restrictive than a complete prohibition would provide the aggregations, particularly the aggregations of permit, with adequate protection.

Thus, the proposed Western Dry Rocks closure satisfies the three criteria that ought to be met any time an MPA is considered:  1) There is a clear conservation need that justifies the added protections, 2) the area is only closed when such closures further the conservation goal, and 3) less-restrictive management measures would not lead to the desired result.

The good news is that, with those criteria met, anglers and angling-related businesses are supportive of the proposed closure.

The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is encouraging people to support the Western Dry Rocks Closure, saying that it is

“calling on the Florida Fish & Wildlife Game Commission to establish a seasonal no-fishing closure at Western Dry Rocks south of Key West.  This would give breeding fish the chance to spawn, resulting in a healthier population, while at the same time preserving the opportunity to fish at Western Dry Rocks in the off-season.”

It further notes that

“Permit, Mutton Snapper, Mangrove Snapper, Grouper and more all spawn at Western Dry Rocks.  And keeping them safe while they do is just one step toward a healthy long-term fishery…Preserving an area of just 1.3 square miles for a handful of months can make an immense difference in keeping this breeding stock healthy, as well as the generation of new fish they spawn.”

A local charterboat operator, Capt. Diego Rouylle, in supporting the closure, said

“It is my wholehearted believe after spending over a quarter century passionately learning about this one species [permit] that STRATEGIC CLOSURES will need to become a significant tool for a productive future in the fishery management of our Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.”

The closures have even gained the support of the Coastal Conservation Association, a national “anglers’ rights” organization, and from the American Sportfishing Association, a tackle industry trade group.  Such organizations’ support is notable, for both have traditionally opposed closing waters to recreational fishing.  But this time, the American Sportfishing Association went so far as to urge anglers to support the closure, saying

“Ten miles southwest of Key West, the Western Dry Rocks hosts multiple spawning schools of recreationally important species such as permit, snapper and grouper.  It is also directly adjacent to unique currents that enhance spawning success by distributing eggs and juvenile fish throughout south Florida, ensuring sustainable recreational fisheries.

“After much discussion, [Florida] is currently considering a seasonal closure of one square mile to protect this special area.  The initial proposal included a two-month closure for May and June.  However, multiple fishing and conservation groups agree that the science strongly supports protecting this important area for a longer amount of time.

“Therefore, we are asking fisheries managers to close the area during the four-month peak spawning season (April-July) to give maximum benefits to the multiple fisheries while still allowing fishing access during the rest of the year.”

When you see groups such as CCA and ASA, which have traditionally opposed closing fishing areas, not only support the Western Dry Rocks closure, but even request that the area be closed for longer than the government originally proposed, you can be certain that the people designing the closure are doing everything right.

The discussion surrounding the Western Dry Rocks closure demonstrates that marine protected areas don’t need to be centers of conflict.

If the people designing MPAs take care to explain why closures are needed, limit their duration to times that make biological sense, and take care that restrictions are no more severe than needed to address recognized problems, marine protected areas can be the focus of broad agreement as well.






Sunday, January 17, 2021



I spend a lot of time writing about fisheries management from a legal perspective—that is, about the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and its positive impacts on the health of fish stocks, and about how the lack of legally-enforceable mandates at the state and regional level has prevented states, and organizations such as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, from emulating federal fisheries managers’ success.

But laws and regulations are only a part of the issue.  The ocean is a dynamic place, where fish populations—and those who seek to manage them—must continually respond to changing oceanographic conditions. 

Some of the changes that fish face are ephemeral, such as the warm-core eddies that break off from the Gulf Stream and bring clear blue water, and the fish that prefer it, into the offshore canyons and up onto the continental shelf, concentrating them until such time as the eddy breaks up or reunites with the Gulf Stream farther down the coast.

Some, while short-lived, can last a little longer.  Cold winters and wet springs appear to boost striped bass spawning success, while warm winters and dry springs can lead to below-average recruitment.  It was hardly surprising that the 2011-2012 winter that wasn’t, which saw high temperatures and little snow throughout the Susquehanna River watershed, led to the lowest Maryland striped bass juvenile abundance index ever recorded, in a time series extending back more than sixty years.

It’s also no surprise that the same winter, which saw unusually warm, salty waters flow across the Northeast’s continental shelf, gave rise to the largest year class of black sea bass ever recorded, because such warm, salty water is directly related to good black sea bass recruitment, which hinges on the number of juvenile fish that survive their first winter at sea.

There are also longer-term, but ultimately transient, oceanographic events such as the North Atlantic Decadal Oscillation, a term which describes periodic and somewhat predictable changes in sea surface temperatures, and can have an impact on fish movements and abundance.

And then there are more permanent changes.  I use the word “permanent” with a little hesitancy, as nothing on Earth is truly permanent—even the Atlantic Ocean itself didn’t exist until somewhere between 170 and 200 million years ago, and geologists are already pointing to signs that, as the continents continue their slow and stately dance across the face of the Earth, it may already be starting to close up and will eventually disappear.  But for purposes of fisheries management, changes that spawn centuries, or even human lifetimes, are permanent enough.

And right now, the biggest such “permanent” change that our fisheries face is climate change.

It already seems to be impacting the health of northeastern fisheries. 

Back in 2013, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center determined that warming waters—and the Gulf of Maine, off northern New England, is one of the most rapidly warming parts of the entire ocean—have led to a marked reduction in the number of planktonic animals that are available as food for larval cod.

That would have been bad enough if cod stocks were healthy; it is likely that a shortage of the zooplankton that larval cod feed on would have caused a decline in recruitment, and affected the long-term productivity of cod stocks.  Such reduced productivity, in turn, might have forced fisheries managers to reduce annual catch limits and adopt more restrictive measures in order to maintain stock health.

But cod stocks were already badly overfished, which made the situation significantly worse.  NOAA Fisheries issued a press release stating that rising water temperatures “profoundly affected” the zooplankton needed by larval cod and by other fish species, and that the decline in zooplankton thus

“may be influencing the recovery of Atlantic cod and other fish stocks in the region.  [emphasis added]”

It’s important to note that the scientists aren’t blaming warming waters for the cod stocks’ collapse.  Years of unabating overfishing did that.  They’re saying that, with cod stocks already in steep decline, the impacts of climate change on the ocean’s food web, managers are probably going to have a much tougher job ahead of them if they want to rebuild the stock.

Climate change, and its impacts on the food web, is just one more reason why fisheries managers need to take a precautionary approach to managing fish stocks.  If they make a mistake now, the impacts of that mistake will hit the stock harder and be more difficult to correct.

And that’s not only the case in the Northeast.

Recently, a study conducted at East Carolina University, in conjunction with NOAA Fisheries, examined the abundance of larval fish of ten different species in the Beaufort, North Carolina area.  The data used for the study extends back to 1986.  An analysis revealed that larval fish now begin entering the estuaries earlier than they did before, and use the estuary habitat over a longer period of time than they formerly did.  Although water temperatures have only risen a modest amount over the years, larval fish species are entering the estuaries as much as two months earlier.

It’s not completely clear what the implications of that finding may be.  As is the case with cod, the impacts of warming water, and larvae entering the estuaries earlier, may all depend on how the warm water affects the food web.

The early presence of larval predators indicates that predatory fish are spawning earlier; if prey species are also reproducing earlier in the year, there may be no problem.  However, if the predator and prey species have not adapted in the same way, and their spawns are now out of synch, the larval fish in North Carolina may, like the larval cod, have difficulty finding enough food.  In that case, recruitment and, ultimately, adult fish abundance, could decline.

Another problem is that when predatory fish are still in their larval stage, they are prey, too.  They don’t only need food; they also need places to hide, to help prevent them from becoming food for bigger fish.  Much submerged aquatic vegetation where larvae might shelter disappears over the winter, and begins to grow back in the spring.  If such vegetation remains sparse when the larval fish arrive in the estuaries, the larvae might find themselves more vulnerable to predators, and experience significantly higher levels of natural mortality. 

Dr. Rebecca Asch, the professor overseeing the North Carolina study, commented that

“with climate change for most species you’re going to have winners and losers,”

and speculated, in an interview with television station WRAL, that tropical fish that previously only visited North Carolina waters, and were unable to survive there during the winter, might number among the “winners” as winter waters warm, while temperate species might find the same waters becoming too warm for their survival, and number among the “losers.”

Summer flounder, which are becoming less abundant in North Carolina waters, may already be firmly set on a losing track.

The fisheries management approach set out in Magnuson-Stevens is largely focused on managing fishing mortality and rebuilding fish stocks, and not on the impacts of climate change.  However, the discussion draft of a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill, being circulated by Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Ed Case (D-HI) suggests that such oversight may soon be corrected.

Title I of the discussion draft is named “Climate-Ready Fisheries,” and seeks

“to account for the impacts of environmental changes on stocks of fish.”

It notes that

“Environmental changes associated with climate change, including changes in water temperature, ocean acidification, and deoxygenation, are rapidly altering the abundance, productivity, and distribution of fish and are affecting commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries,”

and also that

“The impacts of climate change on fish and their habitats are resulting in management and sustainability challenges that threaten to negatively impact marine ecosystems, fishery resources, and coastal communities.”

If the discussion draft’s language is ever made a part of Magnuson-Stevens, regional fishery management councils, as well as NOAA Fisheries, would be required to give more consideration to the impacts of climate change.  When stock assessments are conducted, they would be required to address the impacts of climate change on the stock’s productivity, and examine the vulnerability of each managed fishery to climate change-related issues.

The discussion draft also includes language intended to promote the development of tools and management approaches that would better allow fisheries to adapt to climate change.  In addition, it would establish a procedural framework that would govern how the regional fishery management councils, as well as NOAA Fisheries, should address the problems created by fish stocks shifting into new waters, and abandoning others, as a result of a changing climate.

Anyone who has spent much time on the water has experienced the impacts of climate change.  Here on Long Island, we’ve enjoyed the recently increased abundance of dolphin (mahi-mahi) and black sea bass in local waters.  But we’ve also lost most of our cod and—especially—winter flounder, cold-water species that were badly overfished, but might have been more readily rebuilt if warming waters didn’t compound their troubles.

Looking at the issue through that local lens, the discussion draft is a most welcome approach, that might, Congress willing, force fisheries managers to fully address, and try to adapt to, the climate change issue.


Thursday, January 14, 2021



Since early in 2014, the federal fishery management system has been under attack by a coalition of recreational fishing industry, boating, and anglers’ rights groups which are trying to convince citizens and legislators alike that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which promotes science-based management, prohibits overfishing, and requires the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks, places unreasonable burdens on recreational fishermen and the recreational fishing industry.

Instead of scientifically rigorous, data-driven management measures, the coalition, arrayed under the banner of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, would prefer to see anglers managed under the less restrictive measures that characterize recreational fisheries management in most coastal states, which can be driven by local politics and short-term business concerns as much as by science, tolerate overfishing and overfished stocks, and rarely, if ever, hold the recreational sector accountable for its overharvest.

That conservation-averse position was first formally articulated in early 2014, when the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, acting in conjunction with the member organizations of the Center for Sportfishing Policy (then, the Center for Coastal Conservation) released a manifesto titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” which, among other things, stated that

“Many state natural resource agencies, especially those in the South, recognize the benefits of a vibrant recreational fishing community and have managed to promote it while conserving their saltwater resources.  Striped bass, red drum, black drum, summer flounder, sheepshead, snook, spotted seatrout and tarpon are examples of successfully managed state fisheries that sufficiently meet the needs of recreational anglers while providing extensive economic benefits to their state and the national economies.”

The TRCP report fails to provide any data to support the naked assertion that state conservation measures are adequately conserving the fisheries in question.  That’s not particularly surprising, first because that the so-called “report” was designed from the start to be a persuasive piece of industry propaganda, rather than a document with any vestige of academic integrity, but ultimately because the statement itself was, in large part, untrue.

For example, benchmark stock assessments clearly demonstrated that striped bass were already in a downward spiral that began a few years before the report was released, and state managers’ inaction has now caused the stock to become overfished.  

On the East Coast, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission admits that it just doesn’t know whether the red drum stock is overfished; while in the Gulf of Mexico, spotted seatrout biomass in both Mississippi and Louisiana had already fallen to overfished levels five years ago.  Mississippi finally took action that might fix the problem, but Louisiana is still allowing its fish to languish; proposals to tighten what are now the most liberal speckled trout regulations in the United States have been made, but so far, state managers have not been willing to act in the face of resistance from anglers, or at least from the angling press.

Those are hardly examples of management success.

Some of the other fish mentioned are doing OK, but we can also add another species to the list of state managers' failures.

That species would be southern flounder.

Southern flounder are having trouble in both the South Atlantic and in the Gulf although, in order to limit the length of this piece, I’ll only address the South Atlantic today.  But on either coast, the problem is the same:  State managers were aware of problems with the stock for some time, but they delayed for far too long before trying to fix them.

That is well illustrated by the State of North Carolina, which completed a stock assessment in 2019 that found that southern flounder, across its North Carolina to Florida range, was both badly overfished and still experiencing overfishing.  The assessment notes that the southern flounder stock began to decline in abundance in 2006, and that recruitment has been in a declining trend over that time as well.  On the other hand, fishing mortality increased beginning in 2007, peaked in 2013, and remained relatively high.  

A combination of declining abundance, coupled with increased fishing mortality, could only bode ill for the stock.

That wasn’t North Carolina’s first hint that something was amiss with southern flounder.  The initial fishery management plan, created by biologists at the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries and adopted in 2005, suggested that overfishing might well have been occurring since 1991, and that a 30% reduction in fishing mortality was needed.  At that time, it was thought that more than 85 percent of North Carolina’s southern flounder landings were attributable to the commercial fishery, and less than 15 percent to anglers, which meant that most of the needed reduction would have to come from the commercial fishery.

However, North Carolina’s Marine Fisheries Commission, which was composed of both scientists and recreational and commercial fishermen, didn’t see things that way, and imposed only a 15 percent reduction on the commercial fishery, while seeking to reduce recreational landings by 30.5 percent.  It’s probably not surprising that such decision, which ran contrary to both facts and logic, didn’t end overfishing.

A 2009 stock assessment indicated that the stock was overfished, and overfishing was occurring.  More restrictions were placed on the recreational fishery, but not on the commercial fishery that accounted for most of the landings.  Again, such half-measures were inadequate to end the stock’s problems.

In 2014, North Carolina tried to place more restrictions on the commerfcial fishery, but the commercial fishermen sued, and a judge enjoined the new rules because the stock assessment that they were based on was ultimately deemed to be inadequate for management purposes.

Finally, after completing the 2019 stock assessment, North Carolina realized that very severe restrictions were needed.  As described by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation,

“The spawning stock biomass of southern flounder estimated by the peer-reviewed stock assessment for 2017 was now just 2.3 million pounds while the spawning stock biomass required to achieve the statutory requirement to declare the southern flounder recovered was 12 million pounds within 10 years (by 2028).

“To achieve this goal, the peer-reviewed stock assessment stated that harvest had to be reduced by 72%.  Despite this clear statement in the stock assessment, the [Department of Marine Fisheries]…and the [Marine Fisheries Commission]…only required a 62% reduction in harvest for 2019, further delaying the necessary 72% reduction until 2020…[The] reduction achieved in 2019 was only was only 34%.

“Despite awareness of the 2019 harvest reduction shortfall in 2020, no effort was made…to adjust the 2020 harvest reductions to get back on track.  The 2020 commercial seasons opened during the peak harvest season…therefore the likelihood of achieving the needed 72% reduction in the 2020 harvest is slim.  Importantly, even if a 72% reduction is achieved in 2020, the overharvest in 2019 compromises the overall rebuilding projections.”

That sort of less-than-effective management approach couldn’t happen pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens, which requires fisheries managers to prevent overfishing and adopt regulations that have at least a 50 percent probability of achieving that goal.  And if a sector does overfish, as occurred in North Carolina in 2019, that sector would be held accountable, and probably required to make pound-for-pound paybacks in the following year.

But none of that was required under North Carolina law, so a less effective management approach could be maintained.

It’s easy to understand why state fishery managers aren’t as effective as those operating onh the federal level—their departments report directly to each state’s governor, and so are more vulnerable to the prevailing political winds.  In North Carolina, a lot of those winds are being generated by the commercial fishing sector, which opposed the southern flounder rebuilding program.

As so often happens, they began by attacking the data underlying the stock assessment, despite the long decline in their own southern flounder landings.  One stated that

“If you do simple math, the stock is good, according to my math, and my fifty years on the water.”

A second argued that

“There are plenty of fish in Currituck [Sound].  I fished for twenty-eight days this year and it was as good as ever,”

while a third whined that

“This is the biggest joke: the Marine Fisheries Commission is ultimately going to decide what happens to us?  They have never given a crap about us.”

That sort of language makes it difficult for state fisheries managers to put needed regulations in place, no matter how much they might want to do the right thing, because they’re not the only ones who hear it.  Politicians hear it, too.  And while managers might be adept at counting fish, politicians are even better at counting votes, and aren’t afraid to let managers know when the people who vote are unhappy.

And it doesn’t just happen in North Carolina; state managers are under the same pressures everywhere.  In some cases, they aren’t even empowered to adopt the needed management measures themselves; in South Carolina, for example, changes to fisheries management measures—including those related to southern flounder—are made by the state legislature, and not by state biologists. 

So decisions on flounder management in South Carolina will be based primarily on political, and not scientific, considerations, and political issues tend to take a long time to resolve.  While North Carolina’s response to the latest stock assessment might have been somewhat flawed, at least the state took quick action; South Carolina’s professional fishery managers won’t be able to seek legislative approval of their proposed measures until later this year, giving the stock even more time to decline before action is taken.

Even in states where legislation is not needed to adopt management measures, states often act slowly.  Florida, for example, decided to adopt more restrictive southern flounder regulations just one month ago, even though the state has been aware of the depth of the flounder’s troubles since 2019.

But the organizations who are trying to undercut federal fisheries managers, and praise state approaches, don’t view delay as a bad thing.  In fact, when it comes to rebuilding fisheries, they actually favor a dilatory approach.  The TRCP report argued that

“the 10-year rebuilding provisions [in Magnuson-Stevens] should be revised to provide greater flexibility than is currently allowed,”

and that

“the regional councils and fishery managers set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually [rather than within 10 years] while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”

While drawn-out rebuilding timelines might add uncertainty to the rebuilding process, and perhaps harm fish stocks in the long term, they also preserve higher short-term economic returns, which are important to industry members, who tend to favor them.

To best promote such narrow interests, trade associations—whether representing the commercial or the recreational industry—and anglers’ rights groups typically prefer to see regulations set at the state, rather than the federal level, because it’s far easier to amass the political clout needed to weaken, delay, or completely defeat harvest restrictions at the state level than it is to frustrate federal management efforts.

Because of such political realities, state-managed fisheries often find themselves in much worse shape than to those managed at the federal level.

That’s what happened with striped bass and spotted seatrout, and it’s what happened with southern flounder, too.

Rebuilding the southern flounder stock will be neither a short nor a simple job.  The job would have been far easier if state managers had started it sooner, as they would have had to do if they were bound by the same standards that bind federal managers, which require them to promptly end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks.

But the states weren’t under such mandates when the problems first arose (and only North Carolina is now), so they are going to have to work that much harder to make up for their delay.  

To their credit, they’re now headed in the right direction, but they still have a lot of catching up to do.