Thursday, March 31, 2022


I’ve just returned from the 2022 Saltwater Recreational Fishing Summit, an event that’s hosted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service.  It provides an opportunity to sit in a big room, talk to members of the angling community from all over the country, and listen to a lot of very bright folks discuss issues facing marine fisheries managers.

The summits are held every four years; there have been four since 2010, and I’ve attended every one.  The first couple were largely propaganda sessions for what might be termed the “angling establishment,” the trade organizations for those who make their money off salt water fishermen, along with one or two industry-aligned “anglers’ rights” groups, who used the events to help convince fishery managers to sign on to the industry’s political agenda.

Beginning in 2018, the summits changed in important ways.  Non-establishment voices were given some prominent roles, and the conversations began to exhibit a lot more diversity of opinion with respecet to important issues.  People started taking positions that weren’t necessarily designed to increase the sales of outboard engines and fishing gear.

That trend accelerated this year.  There were quite a few new, and also younger, faces in attendance, and a lot of new ideas being shared.  There was the sort of positive tension that you get when competing ideas are put on the table, and the conversation isn’t controlled by folks intent on promoting a particular socioeconomic agenda.

Of course, the old guard, who pretty much believe that they own the fish and should be the sole arbiters of their disposition, isn’t particularly happy about being challenged by new people and new ideas.  There was a steady stream of grumbling from such folks throughout the event.  The most remarkable comments were made on the second day of the Summit, when we were listening to a panel discussing the collection and use of recreational fishing data.

As was typical for such panels, each speaker introduced themselves by name and affiliation, then made a brief presentation; after the presentations were done, Summit attendees would have a chance to direct comments and questions to the panel of speakers.  Things were flowing well until Kenneth Haddad, who was introduced as the Marine Fisheries Advisor for the American Sportfishing Association, the trade association for the fishing tackle industry, began to speak.

I admit that I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been.  When I attend these events, I typically sit, rapt, making notes on any paper that I have at hand, both because I’m trying to learn from the speakers and because I’m always looking for inspiration for the next blog, magazine article, or newspaper item that I might write.  But just then, I was searching for some language in a legal decision germane to the following panel discussion; at first, it didn’t sink in when Haddad told all of the fishermen in the room to think about golf.

But then the talk continued for just a bit, and that little voice in the back of my mind said that, just maybe. I ought to stop searching for the key paragraph in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, and start paying more attention to what was going on at the front of the room.

Haddad, it turned out, wanted to talk less about golf than about golfers, as he mused about why fishermen and golfers ought to be more alike.  Many fishermen, he noted, got personally involved in the management process, and actively engaged with regulators on the details of management issues; golfers, on the other hand, didn’t worry about things like how much fertilizer might be applied to a particular putting green, they just went out on the course and played. 

Thus, Haddad suggested, anglers should join a fishing club or other organization, and let such organization worry about the nitty-gritty of fishery management.  Fishermen need just get out and fish.

As he noted,

“We probably need to rethink how we engage”

with fishery regulators.

“It’s sport versus making a living off it.”

Or, to put things another way, fishermen—those seeking sport—ought to just shut up and spend their hard-earned wages on fishing tackle, and let the fishing industry and its supporters manage things in a way that is best for business.

That suggestion didn’t go over too well with many of those in the room.

Haddad pointed out that fishermen differ from other outdoor recreationists.  He observed that individual mountain bikers, to provide an example, didn’t each conduct their own efforts to establish trails or gain access to public land, but instead relied on biking organizations to do so.

He wasn’t particularly convincing.

Capt. Peter Fallon, a charter boat captain from Maine and a member of the American Saltwater Guides Association, one of the groups attending the Summit for the first time (Full disclosure:  ASGA is one of my clients), noted that as a hunter, he had more interactions with regulators than he did as an angler and guide.

Haddad speculated that might be the case because there was better interaction between the state and federal authorities who managed hunting activities than there was between state and federal fishery regulators.  He noted that hunters were generally managed at the state level and, in doing so, alluded to the constant, if dubious, refrain of the American Sportfishing Association, along with fellow travelers Coastal Conservation Association and Center for Sportfishing Policy, that state fishery managers do a better job than their federal counterparts.

That brought a quick response form Capt. Scott Hickman, who not only runs a charter boat out of Galveston, Texas, but also operates one of the largest waterfowl hunting operations in the Lone Star State.  He suggested that the better relationship between hunters and their regulators might be due to the fact that Ducks Unlimited, a hunter advocacy group, doesn’t constantly

“put out press releases complaining about what a lousy job the Unites States Fish and Wildlife Service is doing,”

which stands in stark contrast to the many recreational fishing advocacy groups that criticize NMFS on a regular basis. 

Capt. Hickman, who was named the 2016 Volunteer of the Year by the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, where he represented recreational fishermen on the sanctuary’s advisory council, said that things might work out better if the national recreational fishing groups engaged in a little cooperation rather than their current unrelenting criticism of the agency.

Such comments reportedly led to considerable grumbling on the part of the old guard groups, who were displeased about Capt. Hickman's observation, and equallyn unhappy that they no longer controlled the debate.  

In their effort to be the dominant voice at the table, they miss a key point:

I know anglers who walk the rocky shorelines of Montauk, New York in the middle of moonless October nights.  They climb onto barnacle-covered rocks, where they fish for striped bass as swells generated by offshore storms try to knock them off their tenuous perch.  They get washed off the rocks, climb back on, get knocked off again and, soaked despite dry top and waders, cast for hours toward an unseen horizon, relentlessly pursuing their sport.

Folks who do that aren’t born with sheep's genes.  No one is going to get very far by patting them on the head and telling them not to worry about the striped bass, because ASA—or CCA, or the Center—will take care of the management issues.

The folks who I usually fish with like to run small boats far beyond the horizon, hoping to pick a fight with an animal that, if they’re lucky, weighs far more than they do.  They understand that fishing’s not really fun unless you’re three hours into a fight—stand-up of course, none of us use a chair—and the blisters on your hands start to break, leaving shiny pink streaks of gore running down the your rod’s foregrip.  Another hour in, after your back starts to cramp, and you start getting uncontrollable muscle spasms in one of your legs, you keep hanging on because, as I said to a friend long ago, when he began having second thoughts after hooking up to what proved to be a prize-winning tuna, that “something on one end of that line or the other is going to die, and it’s up to you which one it is.”

Tell us we can’t fight our own battles, and our next fight is going to be with you.    

Toward the end of yesterday’s meeting, Capt. Hickman revived the “golf” debate, noting that one of the big differences between fishing and golf was that “I don’t eat golf balls.”  For unlike golf, which is played on private grounds or public courses set aside just for that use, fishing involves living, public trust resources, that must be managed sustainably for the overall benefit of every resident of the United States; they should never be managed to benefit narrow economic interests of any kind. 

And that is the Summit's most important purpose.  It brings together fishermen, charter boat captains, and other stakeholders from all over the country, and provides a platform where everyone can both learn and voice their concerns.  NMFS and the ASMFC do their best to assure that all points of view can be heard, and that no one’s voice is muffled by the handful of organizations who pretend to represent every angler, but in the end only care for themselves.

Institutional arrogance will always be with us.  There will always be those industry voices who believe that the fish, and fishery managers, belong to only them.  But the Summit helps to ensure that everyone present has a chance to speak, have their views included in the record of the meeting, and influence management policy over the next four years. 

For that I thank NMFS and the ASMFC.

Sunday, March 27, 2022


A week or so ago, I finished reading Monte Burke’s book Lords of the Fly, a well-written volume that describes the glory days of flyfishing for world record tarpon off Homosassa, Florida, and manages to weave some broader insights into the narrative as well.

Toward the end of the book, there was a brief reference to a New York Times article penned by Brooke Jarvis.  The piece was about the loss of insects, not fish, but for anglers, it contained this relevant comment:

“Anyone who has returned to a childhood haunt to find that everything somehow got smaller knows that humans are not great at remembering the past accurately.  This is especially true when it comes to changes to the natural world.  It is impossible to maintain a fixed perspective, as Heraclitus observed 2,500 years ago:  It is not the same river, but we are also not the same people.

“A 1995 study by Peter H. Kahn and Batya Friedman, of the way some children in Houston experienced pollution summed up our blindness this way:  ‘With each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm.’  In decades of photos of fishermen holding up their catch in the Florida Keys, the marine biologist Loren McClenachan found a perfect illustration of this phenomenon, which is often called ‘shifting baseline syndrome.’  The fish got smaller and smaller, to the point where the prize catches were dwarfed by fish that in years past were piled up and ignored.  But the smiles on the fishermen’s faces stayed the same size.  The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.”

Author Burke also quotes Marshall Cutchin, a one-time Keys guide who now runs the flyfishing website Midcurrent, who observed,

“The average person goes to the Keys and says, ‘This is beautiful,’ and it is.  But it’s only ten percent as beautiful as it used to be.  If you knew what it once looked like and how much better it was, it’s pretty sad.”

I caught my first fish in the mid-1950s, about the time the first photos used in the Keys “shrinking fish” study were taken.  Of course, I was young enough then that the memories of that event are a little hazy, but I’ve fished enough over the intervening years to have amassed a pretty extensive collection of memories about how things used to be, a collection that provides a pretty good gauge of how far the world, and in particular its fisheries, has fallen in the past 65 years.  They are good memories, for the most part, but their tale of the fall is fairly bleak.

One Angler’s Voyage began with a story of loss, the loss of the smelt fishery that once thrived during late fall and winter along the stretch of coastal Connecticut where I was raised.  It was a fishery that I knew for just a few ephemeral years before it collapsed, foreverr, over a half-century ago.

Just about every year since this blog began, I’ve chronicled the collapse of the southern New England stock of winter flounder, a fish that once seemed to pave the bottom of our estuaries and bays, and now has all but disappeared.  This year, I didn’t bother to discuss it again.  There’s no more of the story to tell; the fish are gone, and given the increased water temperatures and decreased oxygen levels in waters where they used to thrive, I’ve accepted the bitter truth that no one is likely to see flounder filling those bays again.

River herring—blueback herring and alewives—have also been a recurrent theme.  Those stocks have crashed, too, but at least there, one can see a thin thread of hope, as the removal of some dams, the creation of fishways around others, and some very modest management measures offshore are offering hope that the herring runs might, to at least some degree, be restored.

As I stand on the brink of yet another season on and around the sea, I now ask myself, have I grown accustomed to the fall? 

I’m not sure how to answer that question.

Certainly, many of the fish that I pursued in the past are far less abundant than they used to be.  Inshore, we lost the smelt, the tomcod, and winter flounder. Striped bass and bluefish remain overfished.  Weakfish, though overfished, might be staging a comeback, while local tautog stocks are not overfished anymore, although tautog are nowhere near as abundant as they were when I was a boy.  We no longer get big runs of Atlantic mackerel in the spring or Atlantic herring in the fall, and it’s been about 40 years since ling and whiting (red and silver hake) supported a thriving winter fishery in the New York Bight.

Offshore, longfin albacore are few and far between.  Marlin, both blue and white, are less often encountered than they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a swordfish finning out on the surface—although North Atlantic swordfish is deemed to be a fairly healthy stock.  Most species of shark are less abundant than they used to be, with the number of duskies notably lower than they once were, and both the size and numbers of shortfin makos down substantially from where they were just a decade ago.  Even the smaller tuna relatives, fish like skipjack and Atlantic bonito, seem to be harder to find although, lacking a reliable stock assessment, I can’t know for sure whether that is reality or just perception.

On the bottom, cod are, at best, a shadow of what they once were in the southern part of their range, and not doing too well farther north.  About a decade ago, there was a small spike in cod abundance around Block Island which has since abated substantially.  Yet some people are still willing to aver that

“the southern New England stock is doing well,”

and say things such as

“The fish off Rhode Island seem to be getting larger.  We’ve always gotten nice market cod, but not the 35-pound fish we have been catching lately,”


“Fishing has improved in the last few years.  Last year, the season was short, but it was one of the best as far as intensity.  There were cod in the 25-pound range and pollock to 20 pounds mixed in.”

The only problem with statements like that is when I was doing a lot of party boat codfishing off Rhode Island in the late 1960s and ‘70s, the smallest pool fish I ever saw weighed 35 pounds; most were in the high 40s, and fish over 50 weren’t all that rare.

And when I jigged pollock at Block Island in the early ‘80s, 20 pounds was about the smallest fish that we saw.

So 35-pound cod and 20 pound pollock are a big step backward from the fishing that I used to know.

“We grow accustomed to the fall,” indeed.

But I go fishing anyway, despite so many depleted fish stocks, and some could argue that my continued pursuit represents just another way to accustom oneself to declining abundance.

Still, I rarely leave the dock without harboring some level of dolor.  I might sit over a wreck where black sea bass pester my baits well before they hit bottom, and yield immediate hookups, a clear confirmation of biologists findings that the species’ abundance is more than twice the target level.

Yet, like the fish in the Florida Keys, my sea bass are shrinking.  Ten or fifteen years ago, at least at the start of the season, I could run out to a wreck and be sure of finding a few fish that weighed between three and four pounds; some might go a little larger.  On just about every trip, I caught a “doubleheader,” where the combined weight of the two fish exceed seven pounds.

Today, that doesn’t happen.  Even with the current three-fish bag limit, it typically take two or three hours, and sifting through dozens of undersized fish, before I can ice a meager limit of legal-sized sea bass, and those are much smaller than what I caught before.  I haven’t broken four pounds in a while.

High numbers but falling size is usually a sign of increased fishing pressure.  The stock, more dependent on fewer individual year classes, becomes more vulnerable to periods of low recruitment, which can easily spur a decline.  Whether the lack of larger fish that I'm seeing is a meaningless local phenomenon, or whether it signals potential future problems, is impossible for me to know, yet given the fate of so many other species, it’s something that I can’t help thinking about.

Yet I know that few others share such thoughts, and I know that time keeps moving on, leaving ever fewer people who remember the fishing in former days, before things had fallen so far.

Certainly, the recreational fishing industry is more than willing to accustom itself to the fall. 

As Ms. McClenachan noted in her study, today’s fishermen are willing to pay just as much to participate in the current, degraded fishery as they were willing to pay—adjusted for inflation, of course—in the halcyon days of the 1950s.  Thus, the industry has no immediate need to support conservation, particularly since the restrictions needed to restore real abundance might deter today's fishermen from buying new boats and gear, and so reduce the industry’s income.

Instead, we see advertisements hyping faster, longer-ranged boats capable of taking anglers out to the last concentrations of fish, loaded with sophisticated electronics to aid in the hunt.  

We are encouraged to purchase ever more advanced—and ever more expensive—graphite rods, braided lines, and high-tech reels.  We are encouraged to forget that, not so very long ago, an earlier generation of anglers fished from slow wooden boats that often didn’t venture beyond sight of shore.  Using rods crafted from hickory or Calcutta cane, and simple reels loaded with rot-prone linen lines, they caught more and bigger fish than we do today, just because the world hadn’t yet fallen so far.

In the short term, the fall probably benefits the industry; it's probably harder to sell $400 graphite rods when people can catch all the fish that they need with a $5 cane pole.  Today, the industry can easily market “new and improved" products to anglers, too many of whom are already more excited by the tackle that they buy than the fish that they catch with such gear.  

So long as such people keep buying, the industry will keep doing well, and our world will continue to fall. 

In the long term, of course, consequences will flow from our fallen world, but few take the long-term view.  Instead, they hope that by the time the long-term comes around, they will have retired, sold their businesses, spent their bonuses, cashed out their stock options, and have done whatever else needed doing to insulate them from the damage that they helped to create or, at the least, that they condoned.

Others note that the world has been falling since before we were born, and that it’s pointless to stand in the way.  Accepting that fact is, to them, less a matter of being accustomed than of being realistic.

And maybe they're right.

But, at least for me, the start of a new season is always a reminder of things lost.  I can't help but wonder how many such losses could have been averted, if people had acted in time.  Becoming accustomed to the world’s fall means becoming accustomed to loss, to failure, to just giving up and not even trying, just once, to defeat the particular gravity that's imposed by time.

Like everyone who has ever lived, I’ve experienced my share of loss, and my share of failure.  I will experience more.

But I will never become accustomed to it.  Not while I remember a less-fallen world, nor while I believe that this fallen world still has some small chance to rise.


Thursday, March 24, 2022


At least on the East Coast, and along part of the Gulf of Mexico, there is probably no aspect of the fishery management process that is more reviled, questioned, and misunderstood than the Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, that’s used to estimate recreational fishermen’s catch, effort, and landings.

Part of that is because MRIP estimates are used to calculate recreational management measures, which can increase restrictions on anglers, and it’s just human nature to dislike something that keeps you from doing what you want to do.

Teenage kids don't like curfews.  Nobody likes the IRS.

But a big part of the reason so many recrational fishermen say bad things about MRIP is because most anglers don’t take the time, and often don’t want to take the time, to learn how MRIP really works, in order to gain insight into what it does well, where it falls short, and how it might be improved.

The good news is that the National Marine Fisheries Service is now reaching out to anglers with an “Ask MRIP” initiative, which is intended to inform recreational fishermen about the program; the latest installment addresses what can seem to be MRIP’s greatest vulnerability, the errors that impact the precision of MRIP estimates.  

That is an important topic, for it is those unavoidable errors, and some members of the angling community and angling press who point out such errors in uninformed and sometimes just dishonest ways, that undercut fishermen’s faith in the MRIP data, and the regulations that such data supports.

A perfect example of that sort of thing appeared in a coastal Delaware publication, the Cape Gazette, a few months ago.  Titled “Bureaucrats ruining the sport of fishing,” the article in question declared that

“Our sport is in jeopardy of being ruined by a bunch of bureaucrats who have never caught a saltwater fish and have only seen them in photos.  They are using a set of numbers designed by a fatally flawed system known as the Marine Recreational Information Program or MRIP…

“Now, if the NMFS used this data to indicate if the fish populations were going up or down, that would be bad enough, but no, they use their figures as if they were an actual count of the number of fish recreational fishermen caught during a certain time period…

“So where does the horrible information from the fish counters end up?  It goes to the various councils that have the responsibility of managing the resource.  In our case, they are the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  The MAFMC governs the waters from the three-mile limit out to 200 miles, while ASMFC governs waters out to three miles.

“Both agencies must abide by management plans developed long ago with rules set to trigger certain actions should the spawning stock biomass drop below a certain level, the species be overfished or overfishing be occurring…

“…when figuring out the black sea bass recreational quota, which they call Total Allowable Landings, the fish counters took the bad data from the new MRIP and applied the even worse data from the old MRIP, and decided that recreational fishermen had overfished their quota and had to pay it back by giving up a 28 percent decrease in 2022.  Now, if that makes no sense to you, welcome to the club…”

Boiled down, it’s the same old argument that you hear at just about every fishery meeting:  The bad bureaucrats, who don’t fish, are trying to stop you from fishing or from taking fish home, because they have no idea what’s going on in the ocean, while creating more restrictions based on worthless data.

It's the sort of rant that one sees far too often in the outdoor press, and the kind of thing that all too frequently prejudices anglers against MRIP and the management process, despite the fact that such rants typically contain absolutely no factual support for their core assertions that MRIP is “fatally flawed,” and that the MRIP estimates used to regulate black sea bass, or any other fishery, consist solely of either “bad data” or “even worse data.”

About five years ago, the National Academy of Sciences published a comprehensive review of the Marine Recreational Information Program that, far from finding MRIP to be “fatally flawed,” found it to be fundamentally sound, and a solid improvement from what existed before, although some aspects, particularly its suitability for in-season quota management, could still use some work.

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences took another look at MRIP.  Its report, Data and Management Strategies for Recreational Fisheries with Annual Catch Limits, stated that

“Within their intended scope and design constraints, MRIP data are critically important for fisheries management.”

Yet a lot of recreational fishermen still adhere to the myth that MRIP isn’t a valuable fishery management tool.  “Ask MRIP” will hopefully help to correct their misconceptions.

In the recent installment, NMFS began its discussion of error in just the right way—by admitting that

“While we take steps to reduce errors in our recreational fishing surveys, it’s impossible to eliminate them entirely.  Some errors are inherent in the act of sampling.”

It then explains how error can enter the survey because of problems inherent in the survey itself.  Survey size is an important factor; the more people surveyed, the more precise the survey’s estimates are likely to be.  Overall, MRIP surveys about 100,000 anglers each year.  That may sound like a lot, but given that NMFS estimates that saltwater anglers made about 185 million individual fishing trips in 2018, the odds of any one angler being surveyed in a given year are something like 1,850 to one. 

Thus, when you hear some anglers question the validity of MRIP estimates, because they’ve never been sampled, it just means that they haven’t yet beaten the odds.

But those odds get back to two other key contributors to sampling error, the sample design, which ultimately determines who will be sampled, and whether the differences among the people sampled is representative of the differences in the people making up the angling public.  NMFS has engaged in substantial research to ensure that MRIP samples a population that is representative of the angling public, and notes that

“putting a survey into practice is not the last part of the process.  Any time we implement a survey, we continue to research sources of error so our existing—and future—survey designs can be improved.”

Of course, anglers can sabotage MRIP’s accuracy, too.  They can provide inaccurate information to a NMFS surveyor by accident—after all, how many of us keep even an approximate count of the number of undersized black sea bass we release in a typical day of fishing offshore wrecks—or by intent, pehaps by an angler who misreports the number of trips he made, in an effort to manipulate the system, in response to the fishing effort survey, or maybe by a for-hire captain who intentionally understates the number of fish that his fares release, to reduce NMFS' estimates of dead discards, and so avoid more restrictive harvest limits.

There are also fishermen who refuse to cooperate with surveyors, either because they just don’t want to take the time, or because they really don’t want anyone to see the short summer flounder or over-limit striped bass that are concealed beneath the lids of their coolers.

Such misstatements and lack of cooperation can also lead to errors that undermine MRIP data.

But that doesn’t mean that MRIP is “fatally flawed,” or that its data is bad; it just means that MRIP’s estimates are not as precise as they might otherwise be.  And it’s important to note that the precision of each MRIP estimate, expressed as the “percent standard error” is included as a part of the data provided, so anyone using the data can know just how much confidence they can have in the numbers.

When used the proper way, looking at coastwide landings over the course of a year, the precision is typically good, at least for the important recreational fish species; data for seldom-caught species can be much less precise.  When broken down to specific states, sectors, and two-month “waves,” precision quickly deteriorates, and data becomes unreliable.   

That’s not the fault of MRIP, but of the person misusing such data.

In the end, MRIP is a tool, that is both very useful and, when used properly, reliable.  Like any tool, one must know how to use it—and how not to use it—to get good results.

The “Ask MRIP” program provides a lot of advice on how, and why, MRIP should be used.  Stakeholders who want to learn how the program really works should benefit from reading the entire series, including the pieces on how recreational catch, landings, and effort estimates are generated, and on how recreational data is collected, in addition to the most recent article on dealing with estimates’ errors.

And if, after reading all that, they still have a question that needs to be answered, they can truly “ask MRIP” by sending an email to

For it’s far better to ask the experts, and become fully informed, than to read the rants and distortions of MRIP critics, who never took the time to learn how things really work.







Sunday, March 20, 2022


One of the frustrating parts of fisheries advocacy is that you meet a lot of well-meaning people along the way, folks with the sort of energy that, if properly focused, could help move the management process forward.  But far too many such folks have come to some false conclusions about management issues, that they cling to as tenaciously as a barnacle clings to a stone, and when that happens, their practical contributions to the management process fall close to zero.

As Mark Twain once allegedly said (but very possibly didn’t),

“It ain’t what you don’t know that get’s you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In the fisheries arena, a lot of people getg themselves into trouble that way.

Recently, I’ve been in an ongoing debate with a charter boat captain from Massachusetts, who is completely convinced that state regulators destroyed the winter flounder fishery by increasing the trip limit for inshore trawlers from 250 to 500 pounds. 

He claims that fishing was getting steadily better since he began fishing the area about 25 years ago, but that it started to tank around 2012, after the trip limit was increased, and the flounder were exposed to much higher levels of fishing pressure.  

He also argues that the entire Gulf of Maine stock of winter flounder are overfished, and that in order to address the problem, the trawlers should be banned from state waters, and forced to fish farther offshore.

He offers no data to support his opinion about the trawlers, but refuses to consider the possibility that such opinion could be wrong.  Contradictory facts are dismissed as "lies" or the products of a "corrupt" management system.

I looked into the issue a little bit, first just out of curiosity and then, as he continued to discount any data that conflicted with his beliefs, to try to explain a little bit about how the fishery management process actually works and, how his concerns fit inton the overall management program.

It turns out that the Gulf of Maine winter flounder is the only one of the three winter flounder stocks recognized by the New England Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service that hasn’t been declared overfished.  That’s not because the Gulf of Maine stock is necessarily more abundant than the other two, but because the model used to determine the health of the population is incapable of estimating spawning stock biomass, and does not allow biologists to develop biological reference points that could be used to determine the state of the stock.

The most recent stock assessment update strongly suggests that Gulf of Maine flounder abundance may have been declining since 2014.  Thus, it’s possible that, if biological reference points could be calculated, and a good estimate of the biomass produced, the Gulf of Maine stock would be found to be overfished as well.  But it’s also possible that, if such calculations could be made, biologists would find that while abundance had declined, spawning stock biomass had not fallen below the threshold (one-half of the biomass needed to produce maximum sustainable yield) that defines an overfished stock.

Right now, it's impossible to know.  The data just isn't there.

And that lack of knowledge is important, because if the Gulf of Maine stock of winter flounder was found to be overfished, that finding would have clear legal consequences.  Pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, NMFS would be required to implement a rebuilding plan for the stock within two years, and that rebuilding plan would have to be designed to rebuild the stock within ten years after its initiation.

Thus, one cannot merely do as the captain in question would do, and declare the stock to be overfished based on “common sense.”  Stock status must be determined in accordance with objective standards, not only to accord with Magnuson-Stevens, but also to ensure that the resulting regulations comply with the Administrative Procedures Act's standards, which require, in part, that a

“reviewing court…hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions found to be arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law…[or] unsupported by substantial evidence  [emphasis added, internal formatting omitted]”

Basing a regulation on someone's subjective view of “common sense” rather than on objective data would pretty well guarantee that such regulation would not survive its trip to the courthouse.

And when you look at the data in Massachusetts, it doesn’t even really accord with the captain’s memory, much less his claims of cause and effect.

His argument was that recreational fishing got increasingly better from the late 1990s to 2012 or so, then began to decline as more commercial effort entered the fishery.  But when we look at recreational and commercial catch data for the fishery, we see a very different story unfold.  

Massachusetts recreational flounder landings for the years 2002-2007 were only about half of what they were in the years immediately prior--for a period of six years, the fishing wasn't getting better, but worse, than it had been in the late '90s--then suddenly quadrupled for the years 2008-2011, before dropping by more than half again in 2012-2016.  After spiking a bit in 2017 and 2018, they then fell to all-time lows for the next three years.

Charting recreational landings against commercial landings, we see a pattern quite different from what the captain suggested emerge.  Commercial landings peaked, between 10.4 million and 11.7 million pounds, during the years 2001-2003, right at the time when the Massachusetts captain claimed that recreational fishing was getting better.  Then they entered a period of steady decline.  While such landings did increase modestly between 2011 and 2013, from 4.5 million to 5.4 million pounds—roughly half of what they were at their peak, such landings fell sharply after that, falling from 3.8 million pounds in 2014 to just 0.9 million pounds in 2020.

Recreational and commercial landings reached historically low levels at the same time, so to blame increasing commercial landings for the steady decline of the winter flounder population, particularly when the most recent stock assessment update found that overfishing isn’t occurring, doesn’t accord with the available data.  

Certainly, overfishing may have played a role in the early years, and even well into the first decade of this century, but the fact that both commercial and recreational landings, as well as estimates of stock abundance, is waning even though fishing mortality remains acceptably low suggests that causes other than fishing, perhaps ocean warming (the Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly warming bodies of water on the planet), are driving its continued decline.

But, again, we lack the knowledge to identify what those causes might be.

To be fair, the flounder situation might have been a little different around Boston Harbor, where that particular captain usually fished.  But even if it were, that fact would demonstrate why statistically valid data, rather than an individual’s perceptions of what is going on, ought to drive the fishery management process.  Because yes, there may be local differences in abundance—after the striped bass stock collapsed in the late 1970s, there was still unusually good fishing for very large fish at Block Island and Cape Cod’s Pochet’s Hole—but local observations of abundance or scarcity are not appropriate drivers of management action, which needs to be based on information that reflects the overall state of the stock.

Gulf of Maine winter flounder are, after all, managed as a unified stock, and not broken down into local populations (if, indeed, local populations exist, as they do in the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock; my suggestion that the captain in question try to find someone to finance a study on whether the fish around Boston Harbor comprised a discreet population, and should be subject to special state management measures, did not receive a warm reception).  It is the overall status of the stock that drives management, and not the seeming abundance or absence of fish in one particular spot.

Thus, the captain in question has fallen into a trap that snares far too many people who have the desire, and the enthusiasm, to get involved in the management process, but who insist on elevating their own opinions above demonstrable facts.  Scuh people get frustrated with fishery managers who refuse to elevate their anecdotal comments, and perceived correlations of cause and effect, above statistically valid, verifiable data. 

 They then take out their frustrations on the management system, unwilling to ask, and perhaps not wanting to know, whether the fault lies not in the system, but in themselves.

If we are to have healthy, sustainable fisheries, which continue to provide food, recreation, and employment in the long term, management of those fisheries must be based on the best scientific information available.

If we base management on our guesses, our biases, and on what we want to be true, we only do a disservice to the fish-- and to ourselves.




Thursday, March 17, 2022


 Fishery managers, along with citizens concerned about effective fishery management, spend a lot of time trying to see that effective laws and regulations are put in place, in order to regulate harvest and help to ensure the long-term sustainability of marine fish stocks.

The very existence of such laws and regulations is enough to keep most fishermen honest, although not everyone complies with the laws.  There are some who believe that the mere fact that they spent money on fuel and bait entitles them to bring some fish home, whether or not such fish are of legal size or caught within the legal season.

Other anglers feel that the likelihood of being caught poaching fish is slim enough that they can ignore the laws, take what they please, and accept any fine that they receive, if they get caught, as a small price to pay for all of the illegal fish they’ve put on their tables.  Unethical commercial fishermen, who can generate substantial profits from illegal harvest, essentially view such fines as a cost of doing business, an expense far smaller than the revenues generated by illicitly landed seafood.

Unfortunately, such cynical views can be justified by courts’ lenient treatment of poachers.

I belong to the Suffolk Alliance of Sportsman, my county’s fish and game federation, and write a saltwater fisheries column for the organization’s newsletter.  One of the other columns is written by an officer of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Police unit.  While perusing the newsletter’s March issue, I began reading the officer’s column, and came across a disturbing report, that ran under the heading of “Boat Patrol to Montauk.”

“On 11/7, ECOs Ike Bobseine, Landon Simmons and Taylor Della Rocco took the 31’ Safeboat to patrol the Atlantic Ocean.  After several compliant recreational vessel checks, the crew observed a vessel in the Atlantic Ocean south of Montauk.  On board, 2 persons were hauling up a gill net, both commercially permitted fishermen.    On board, in a cooler, were 11 tagged striped bass, all using allocation tags issued to another fisherman, who was not on board.  They had, also, an additional 82 unused striped bass tags.  An additional 5 untagged striped bass were found, hidden, on board, which were all under the 26” minimum size for commercially harvested striped bass.

“The captain admitted that he was out of striped bass tags for the year, and knew that it was illegal to fish using someone else’s tags…The fishermen were each charged with a misdemeanor, for the illegal commercialization of fish, plus a separate violation for possessing undersized fish and illegal use of tags.  In total, each fisherman faced penalties of up to $800 for the 16 illegal fish and an additional penalty of $5,000, based on the current market value of the fish.  The current market value of the fish illegally on board the vessel was $388.02…

“On 1/5, in East Hampton Town Court, the captain pled to a violation, with a $100 fine and a $75 surcharge; all other charges were dismissed.  [emphasis added]”

The way the disposition of the charges was described, with the captain of the offending vessel pleading guilty to a single violation, and all other charges being dropped, very strongly suggests that the prosecutor chose to accept a slap-on-the-wrist plea deal rather than go through the trouble of trying the case.

While it’s easy shrug off such an outcome because it happened in the East Hampton Town Court, a historically poacher-friendly venue, the sad fact is that such outcomes aren’t unusual even in places where commercial fishing, and commercial poaching, aren’t woven into the fabric of the community. 

Up in Connecticut, where commercial striped bass fishing has been illegal for well over half a century, prosecutors have proven equally reluctant to prosecute anglers' striped bass violations. 

Many years ago, in response to the striped bass collapse of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Connecticut legislators passed a law that made any breach of striped bass regulations a misdemeanor.  Poachers were subject to fines of up to $100 per fish for their first violation, $200 per fish for their second violation, and $500 per fish, and/or imprisonment for up to 30 days, for any subsequent violations.

Those are the sort of fines one often hears ethical anglers call for these days, in order to deter anglers from poaching, but the Connecticut law had the opposite effect, because prosecuting a misdemeanor case takes a lot of work.  

When I practiced some criminal law in Connecticut many years ago—in fact, during the heart of the striped bass collapse—prosecuting a routine misdemeanor required the state’s attorney to prepare a charging document called an “information,” meet with the accused’s attorney to try to negotiate a disposition of the case, and then appear in court to present the information, at which point the judge would take the defendant’s plea.  If the defendant pled not guilty, the state’s attorney would schedule the case for trial, then hold a “pre-trial conference,” which was a formalized plea-bargaining session.  If that led to naught, the state’s attorney would have to interview witnesses, assemble the evidence, and otherwise prepare the case for trial, all the time holding plea bargain discussions, before finally trying the case, which might well involve jury selection and all that entails.

I doubt that the process has changed very much since then.

Very few state’s attorneys are willing to go through such a process to prosecute an angler who might have been a fish or two over limit or kept a couple of short bass.  As a result, the seemingly stiff penalties were rarely if ever enforced, as the state’s attorneys chose to nolle the charges, which is a formal way of saying that instead of having the client enter a plea, they informed the court that they would not prosecute the alleged crime.

Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s marine fisheries manager, described the situation to a reporter from The Day.

“The practical end result was that our officers would pursue misdemeanor cases that would ultimately get thrown out.  You’d have a situation where a guy who took to many striped bass and got caught by our environmental conservation police.  There’s a lot of paperwork for the officers, they would go through the whole process, and it would get thrown out.”

The answer to the problem was counterintuitive.  Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection decided that enforcement of striped bass regulations would be more effective if penalties were reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction, so that state’s attorneys would not need to engage in a complicated prosecution, which they were unwilling to pursue, in order to gain a conviction. 

Instead, the smaller fine connected to an infraction could be paid by mail, if the poacher was so inclined.  As Dr. Davis explained,

“It’s like when you get a speeding ticket, you might just say, ‘I’m going to pay the ticket, then it’s done with, and I don’t have to deal with the further hassle.’  With an infraction you could still plead not guilty and go to court to try to get out of the fine, but people are less likely to do that, whereas with a misdemeanor case you’re compelling them to go to court.”

Last year, both houses of the Connecticut legislature passed a law that reduced striped bass violations from misdemeanors to infractions, placing them on the same plane as other recreational finfish violations, with fines beginning at $75 per illegal fish.

Hopefully, the speed and certainty with which fines are imposed under the new regulation will work better than higher penalties that were rarely, if ever, imposed.

Yet, while such answer may be appropriate for minor recreational violations, where anglers were motivated by little more than the desire to enjoy a fish dinner, it is entirely inadequate to address commercial poachers driven by the profit motive, and profits from illegal activity can be very high.

Provided that the evidence was strong enough to support the prosecution, there was no excuse for the poachers in the East Hampton case to get away with a fine that was less than half the value of their illegal catch, particularly given the fact that they had over 80 unused, illegal tags on their boat, which could have been used to put about $5,000 in illegal fish on the dock.  The illegal commercialization charges should have been pursued.

However, one of the factors behind prosecutors’ reluctance to press such charges is judges’ frequent reluctance to impose penalties commensurate with the crimes or the work done to gain convictions.  In that respect, state judges could learn from their federal counterparts, who are far more willing to impose meaningful penalties.

When a New York commercial fisherman repeatedly underreported his summer flounder landings by over 300,000 pounds, federal prosecutors aggressively pursued the case, and a federal judge proved more than willing to sentence the poacher to seven months in prison, require him to pay more than $600,000 in restitution, and also sentence him to three years of post-release supervision.

Given such charges, it’s hardly surprising that the press release announcing the conviction referred to the poacher as

“the former operator of the dragger F/V Stirs One.  [emphasis added]”

And such federal prosecutions aren’t limited to the commercial sector.

For many years, Virginia hosted a spectacular winter striped bass fishery, which saw numerous big fish—bass well over 40, 50, and even 60 pounds—caught by anglers and weighed in at some of the big-money tournaments that the fishery supported.  However, there was a big, dirty secret that everyone knew, but no one publicly admitted:  Just about all of the big fish were being taken in federal waters more than three miles of shore, where even targeting striped bass, much less harvesting them, was illegal.

The fishery went on for many years, but in 2011, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced the conclusion of a three-year investigation, which culminated in the seizure of GPS systems, cell phones, and other electronics, along with documents including the client lists of four charter boats fishing out of Virginia’s Rudee Inlet.  Convictions ensued.

One of the poachers, William W. Lowery, was sentenced to 30 days in jail, fined $5,000, ordered to pay $1,300, and also sentenced to 1 year of probation, during which probation he was prohibited from participating in Virginia’s charter boat industry in any manner.  He was also required to permanently surrender his captain’s license.

Another poacher, David Dwayne Scott, wasn’t given jail time, but was hit with a $5,600 fine and required to pay $1,900 restitution.  He was sentenced to three years of probation, during which time he could not engage in the commercial or recreational fishing industries anywhere in the world, work as a captain or mate on a fishing vessel, or perform any services in support of commercial or recreational fishing.

Two others were given lesser sentences, including 180 days home confinement and three years probation in one case, and fines and probation in the other.  In both cases, the poachers and their charter boat operations were required to equip their boats with vessel monitoring systems that would allow regulators to track their movements and thus know if such vessels entered the EEZ during the probation period.

It's easy to imagine how such penalties, if applied to violators fishing in the northeast, might discourage poaching in the EEZ off Block Island during the summer, or south of Fire Island and in New York Bight in the fall.

Some sort of enhanced enforcement is needed, because the current situation, in which poachers have little fear of the law, is untenable.

The best fishery management measures are not worth very much if people ignore them, and no matter how well enforcement folks do their jobs, that work goes for naught if prosecutors and judges fail to follow through once violations get into the courts.

Putting effective management measures in place is only half of the management equation.

The other half is finding effective ways to compel fishermen, whether commercial or recreational, to play by the rules.





Sunday, March 13, 2022


 The public hearings on the Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Striped Bass for Public Comment have begun.  A look at the hearing schedule reveals that four mid-Atlantic venues, Delaware, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the District of Columbia, and Virginia, held their public hearings last week, and that the high-profile hearings which usually draw the biggest crowds, held in states between New Jersey and Maine, begin tomorrow in New Jersey, and run through Maine and New York—Hudson River on March 23 (coastal New York is on the 16th) and New Hampshire on March 29.

Depending on the state, such hearings will be held in in-person, webinar, and hybrid (in-person and webinar) formats.  People who can’t make a hearing may send their comments in the to email and snail mail addresses provided at the end of this post.  Deadlines for all mailed or emailed comments is 11:59 p.m. on April 15.

A year ago, over 3,000 stakeholders commented on a preliminary document, the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, and the volume of comments, along with their near-universal call for improved striped bass conservation, led the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board to keep a lot of bad ideas out of the draft amendment, and put some good new proposals in.

But a few bad ideas remain, so it’s important that concerned anglers and other stakeholders turn out one more time, and make a concerted effort to get those bad ideas out, and make sure that the good ideas become a part of the final Amendment 7.  

If we can muster the same sort of turnout, and the same sort of unity, that we mustered a year ago, there is a very good chance that the Management Board will turn out an Amendment 7 that will materially improve the ASMFC’s striped bass management program, lead to a rebuilt stock in the foreseeable future, and result in a striped bass fishery that is sustainable in the long term.

Of course, if people don’t turn out in good numbers, that will send its own message to the Management Board, and likely lead to a very different result.

So, hopefully, folks are preparing their comments, and one of the things that they ought to be asking is how to make those comments as effective as humanly possible.

Effective advocacy is both art and science; it’s something that you learn how to do, and that the only way to really learn is to get out and do it.  But to help shortcut the process, I’m going to offer a few tips on how to make your case, gleaned from over 40 years as an attorney, and an even longer time as an advocate for striped bass conservation.

The first thing to do is understand what issues are on the table. That means that you'll actually have to read the Draft Amendment.

The draft amendment is available on the ASMFC’s website; you can access it directly by clicking on the link in the very first line of this blog.  While you might be able to skip over some of the introductory sections—although, particularly if you’re fairly new to striped bass management issues, I suggest that you don't, as they provide valuable background—the most critical information, including the issues to be decided and some explanatory material about them, is found in Section 4.0, Management Program and Proposed Options.

Before doing anything else, read that section, which is detailed and long, to learn just what the ASMFC is asking stakeholders to comment on.

There are four broad issues being presented:  Management triggers, reducing recreational release mortality, rebuilding the striped bass stock, and management program (more often called “conservation”) equivalency.  There are subordinate issues associated with each of the four, and for each subordinate issue, the draft amendment provides a set of options providing management alternatives.  

Those are the only issues and options that the Management Board wants to hear about, and it will do neither you nor the bass any good to speak about something else.

This is not the time to talk about a moratorium, “gamefish status,” treble hook bans, law enforcement efforts, menhaden management, or any other issue that is not directly addressed, and presented along with management options, in Section 4.0.  If you do so, you will only be wasting the hearing officers’ and other commenters’ time, and demonstrating that you don’t fully understand how the comment process works.

So only answer the questions being asked, and before you answer, particularly if you’re commenting at a hearing, know what you want to say.  After reading each of the four issues, take the time to think about each option, and decide which ones you support.  If you have any questions on what the impact of one or more of the sub-options might be, there is infoprmation available on the Internet that can help you.

First and foremost is Draft Amendment 7 itself, which provides some background on each of the issues, and each group of options, being presented.  The Plan Development Team worked long and hard to give stakeholders the information that they need to evaluate the options, and you would be doing yourself a disservice if you don't take advantage of their work.

If you wish to go beyond that, I can selfishly recommend a three-part series in One Angler’s Voyage that began on January 12, which broadly describes the potential impacts of each of the many options in the draft amendment, and a second four-part series that began on February 6, which makes specific recommendations on which options would best benefit the bass.  The American Saltwater Guides Association also published a piece last week that walks the reader through each option and provides advice on which ones to choose, with a rationale for the Association’s recommendations.  The Association also carries a piece on its website that was written by Capt. John McMurray, New York’s legislative proxy to the Management Board, which discusses the various options and their impacts in some depth.

Once you understand the options and adopt positions that you believe are right, the next step is to communicate those positions to the Management Board. 

When you do so, remember your role.  

You are probably not a biologist, and if you are, you probably don’t study striped bass. The science you need to evaluate the various options is, for the most part, included in the draft amendment, and to the extent it isn’t, it is in the 2018 benchmark stock assessment.  So don’t try to make science-based arguments that don't rely on information from one of those documents.  You may have your own opinions about release mortality rates, the level of commercial discards, the accuracy of the Marine Recreational Information Program, or any other scientific/technical issue, but if you don’t have statistically valid data to support your assertion, you’re not going to convince anyone.

Saying that “the seals [or the cormorants] ate all the stripers” will get you about as far as “the dog ate my homework” did back in your childhood days.

Never forget that, as an advocate, credibility is your most important asset.  Lose your credibility, and you've pretty well lost everything.

On the other hand, if you are a striped bass angler, you are probably a reliable observer of what occurs on the water.  So your own thoughts on angler behavior, with respect to whether fishermen would respect a rule prohibiting them from targeting striped bass during the heart of the season, or whether a ban on the use of gaffs might prevent out-of-slot bass from being needlessly killed, are completely relevant to the Draft Amendment 7 debate.

You must decide how you will communicate your views to the Management Board, orally, at a hearing, or in writing.

Providing written comments is always best.

There is also value in attending a hearing, because hearings provide an opportunity to highlight particularly important issues.  But providing nothing but oral comment is usually a mistake, for a number of reasons.

First, if the hearing is crowded, you may get a very limited time to speak.  It isn’t unusual for speakers at crowded hearings to be limited to just five minutes; sometimes, they sometimes only get three.  Draft Amendment 7 encompasses four distinct issues, that are further broken down into twenty-one related sub-issues; overall, the public is presented with fifty-three separate options addressing various questions.

Just pronouncing positions on twenty-three different matters would take up a good part of a five-minute time allotment.  Even if you get to speak longer, rattling off a series of options, with no opportunity to explain why you made the choices that you did—which is often the thing that folks from the Management Board most want to hear—makes for an uninspiring and lackluster presentation.

Instead, after approaching the podium, introduce yourself, quickly describe your connection with the fishery (“I have been surfcasting for striped bass for about 20 years,” or “I run a 26-foot charter boat out of Chatham”), and name any organizations that you may be representing, then highlight the issues most important to you, whether those issues include a prompt management response to overfishing, limiting the use of conservation equivalency, or initiating a rebuilding plan as quickly as possible.  Take some time to explain why those are the key issues, state your preferred options, and then provide the hearing officer with a set of written comments that address all of the issues in the draft amendment.

By preparing written comments in addition to your oral testimony, you ensure that, even if the hearing is so crowded that you don’t get a chance to speak at all, your views will be put on record, and communicated to the Management Board.

Because it is likely that some or all of your state’s three Management Board members will be present at the hearing, it is always good practice to make additional copies of your written comments to hand directly to each of them after you speak.  While your comments will be provided to the entire Management Board prior to the next Management Board meeting, your own state's Board members are your most important allies; they will almost always be more interested in your comments than members from elsewhere.  You can also follow up with your state representatives, to expand on any comments that you have already made.

At all times, at hearings and in written comments, strike a respectful tone; insulting, threatening, or demeaning hearing officers, the Management Board, or the fishery management process, or other people who are providing comment, does you no good, and will probably brand you as someone unlikely to have much worthwhile to say.  Similarly, while in the audience, loud commentary, booing, and catcalling will not serve your cause; even applause for other speakers can be disruptive, although polite applause when a particularly cogent point is made is probably OK.

Written comments, whether handed in at a hearing or sent directly to the ASMFC, should be more detailed than those made on the hearing record.  Again, providing an explanation of why you preferred the options you did gives decisionmakers valuable guidance.

Effective fisheries advocacy requires that the advocate be fully informed, takes scientifically justifiable positions, effectively communicates such positions to decisionmakers and, by doing so consistently, convinces decisionmakers of his or her credibility and value to the decision-making process. 

Thoughtful comment can make a difference.  I urge everyone concerned with the long-term health of the striped bass stock to provide such comment on Draft Amendment 7.

The bass can use your help.


Written comments on Draft Amendment 7 may be handed to ASMFC staff at all local hearings, emailed to, with a subject line that reads “Draft Amendment 7,” or mailed to Emilie Franke, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission,