Sunday, July 31, 2022



For some reason, the summer of 2022 has seen an unusual number of people being bitten by sharks off the beaches of Long Island, New York.

According to the International Shark Attack Files, a comprehensive aggregation of all known shark attacks dating back to the early 1500s, only 12 people were bitten in New York’s waters prior to 2022. So far in 2022, with July not even over, six people have already had one of their extremities gently gnawed by the toothy sea creatures.


The sharks involved are, quite literally, ankle-biters, immature fish less than five feet in length that usually fasten themselves to someone’s foot (although a few hands and an unfortunate buttock also received nips) and then quickly let go after sensing that it wasn’t really the baitfish that they had initially perceived it to be. Most, if not all, appear to be sand tigers, a species that is reasonably abundant in inshore waters, but generally stays close to the bottom and out of the public consciousness until such a mistake occurs.

The International Shark Attack Files notes that

Many bites in this area involved juvenile sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus). Despite their fearsome appearance, their thin protruding teeth are excellent for snagging the small fish they feed on. There is a nursery for sand tigers located off Fire Island New York [a barrier beach located off Long Island’s central south shore]. Many shark bites around the world are from younger individuals in low visibility water. This is likely the cause for some of the bites in this area. Using genetic techniques, the ISAF team previously identified this species from a tooth in the boy’s leg after he was bitten on Fire Island.


Such comments make perfect sense. I fish in the Fire Island area, often targeting sharks in conjunction with a research team from Stony Brook University; through much of July, a phytoplankton bloom left local waters cloudy and green, severely limiting visibility. Combine such impaired visibility with the presence of forage fish, a healthy population of juvenile sand tigers, and people fluttering their hands and feet in the water in unintentional imitation of a wounded baitfish, and the odds of an adolescent shark making an inadvertent error become fairly high.

Calling such accidental bites an “attack” stretches the definition of that word very close to the breaking point.

Unfortunately, as the observed by Larry Vaughn, the fictional mayor in the movie Jaws, “…it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everyone says ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” While most people’s reaction to the Long Island shark bites hasn’t been anything close to a panic, with some staying out of the water and the rest treating the season as summer-as-usual, a few have lost all sense of perspective, and perhaps any sense at all.


One extreme example of shark-induced hysteria appeared in a letter to Newsday, a broadly distributed publication, which read, “As someone who spent years growing up and swimming at the beaches on Fire Island, it is disheartening to see the problems with the sharks…Why not have the Coast Guard and/or the police fly helicopters, or even use drones, over the waters looking for the sharks to do this: If sharks are spotted, then an explosive device can be dropped between the shore and the shark. The intent is not to kill the sharks, but to scare them away. [emphasis added]”


Fortunately, the problems associated with depth-charging sharks from the air, not the least of which being that, since the fish are swimming just off popular beaches, one would be depth-charging swimmers and surfers as well, are readily apparent to most sapient beings, so that idea didn’t gain any traction. The mere fact that it was proposed is more than a little dismaying.

Some newspaper coverage has been dismaying as well. After a local teenager straddling his surfboard and waving his feet in the murky water was bitten just 45 feet from shore, the New York Post, a publication never known for restrained reporting, declared that the surfer received a “vicious mauling” and then “kicked free from the six-foot man-eater and rushed to shore frantically.”


It was the sort of sensational account that warps the public’s view of sharks and their interactions with swimmers.

While the young surfer did suffer a 4-inch cut on the bottom of his foot, that’s hardly a “vicious mauling.” The shark apparently released the teen’s foot and went away quietly as soon as it sensed its mistake.


That’s not the behavior of a “man-eater,” a hyperbolic and generally inaccurate term that, if used at all, should be limited to the white, tiger, and bull sharks that were responsible for just about all of the fatal North American shark attacks. If the surfer had been attacked by a shark with predatory intent, he wouldn’t have gotten away with just a cut foot, but almost certainly would have lost the entire appendage, if not a piece of his leg. However sand tigers, along with sandbar and dusky sharks, New York’s other common inshore species, lack both the tools and the inclination to do that sort of damage.


Thus, the public’s fears of sharks and Long Island’s “shark infested” waters are unjustifiably reinforced.


It doesn’t help that public officials are sometimes garbling their message. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who presides over the jurisdiction where five of the six bites occurred, unintentionally attributed at least one of them to a tiger shark, a species known to have fatally and seemingly intentionally attacked human beings, rather than to a sand tiger, a smaller animal that only bites people by accident. Executive Bellone did correctly note that, given the species sighted so far, county officials do not expect anyone to experience a serious shark-related injury.


Government’s good-faith efforts to prevent further shark bites probably add to public misperceptions, while doing little to reduce the likelihood of additional incidents. While flying drones over beaches, patrolling with boats and jet skis, and similar surveillance might spot the occasional group of spinner sharks attacking a menhaden school, and so prevent people from finding themselves among the feeding fish, such activities are unlikely to detect a bottom-hugging sand tiger hunting fish just outside the roiled surf, even though it is those sand tigers which are responsible for most of the bites.


The good news, which often gets lost among the breathless hyperbole, is that the return of sharks to Long Island beaches is evidence of a healing ecosystem. As explained by Christopher Paparo, manager of Stony Brook University’s Marine Science Center, “What happened in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, [sharks] were heavily fished, and many of their populations neared complete collapse. Then through regulations and conservation of not only sharks, but their food—the Atlantic menhaden, which is better-known as bunker—these populations have rebounded, and we’re starting to now see them once again in the numbers that they used to be.”

As Mr. Paparo further explained,


Shark populations around the world in general are on the decline. Yet New York is one of the busiest metropolitan areas in the world, and we have a booming shark population. That’s a good thing—people don’t want to hear that. But last year, there were just 73 unprovoked attacks worldwide. There are 4,000 drownings just in the U.S. every year, but people still go swimming. It’s scary, and nobody wants to be the 74th person on that list—I get that. But with the fear, you get people who are talking about how we need to cull sharks.

Such culling would be foolish, even more foolish than depth-charging sharks from the air. Yet, in the same July 2022 that saw sharks bite Long Island swimmers, a group of fishermen and charter boat captains organized a Florida shark tournament intended to thin the bull shark population. They didn’t even do it because the sharks were biting people, but merely because they were eating a few fish that the fishermen wanted for themselves.


Some tournament supporters’ hostility toward sharks was so great that, according to the website of a Florida television station,, they were posting things on the group website such as “Kill as many as possible every day please,” and “Big or Small, kill ’em all.”

We’re not yet seeing such antipathy here on Long Island, and hopefully we never will.

Still, so long as sharks are cast as threats and objects of fear, instead of a key component of the marine ecosystem, they will probably always face some level of hostility.

When inspired to fear or hostility toward any native animal, or when faced with proposals to cull sharks from our nearby sea, we would do well to recall the words of pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold, who wrote “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land [or sea] mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”


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


Thursday, July 28, 2022



A day or two ago, I received a press release prepared by Omega Protein, the sole remaining industrial-scale menhaden harvester on the Atlantic seaboard.  The release began

“Yesterday, Monday, July 25, while fishing for menhaden, an Ocean Harvesters vessel fishing on behalf of Omega Protein had a rare and unexpected encounter with a school of red drum.

“Menhaden fishing is performed using spotter aircraft whose pilots are experienced in identifying schools of various species from the air.  When a spotter pilot sees a school of menhaden, they direct the fishing vessels on the water to that location where they will surround the school with a net called a ‘purse seine…’  When a menhaden spotter pilot sees a school of fish that they identify as red drum or another game fish species, they will advise their boats to avoid that location, and as a courtesy, will often radio recreational captains in the area with the location of the sport fish.

“On Monday, the Ocean Harvesters crew made a set approximately 1 mile offshore of Kiptopeke State Park.  While bringing the menhaden aboard the vessel, the captain attentively noted a group of red drum in the net.  He immediately instructed the crew to open the net and release the fish.  The crew observed that many fish swam away, but the captain acknowledged that many fish likely died in the incident.

“It is a rare event for menhaden nets to interact with red drum, or any other species…The most likely explanation is the unusual situation in which a school of red drum swam beneath a school of menhaden, making them unobservable to the spotter pilot…

“…Bycatch in the menhaden fishery is rare.  Current research indicates that catch of non-targeted species comprises less than 1 percent of the volume…”

The release is a wonderful example of a corporate public relations department doing its best to sugar-coat an unpleasant truth, in this case, the harm that its operations do to publicly owned natural resources.

While I don’t know all of the facts surrounding the incident, since it occurred just off a state park on a hot midsummer’s day, it probably didn’t go unnoticed, but instead was witnessed by quite a few people.  Omega undoubtedly wanted to get ahead of the story, and put its spin on the facts in front of the public before the conservation and recreational fishing communities had a chance to cast its actions in a more negative light, and maybe convince that same public that Omega was engaged in activities that were not in the interests of most Virginians. 

Getting ahead of the story was probably particularly important to Omega, given that some Virginia politicians have been arguing that allowing Omega to purse seine menhaden within the confines of the Chesapeake Bay is bad public policy, and talking about legislation to halt the practice.

Such legislation would likely have significant public support, given that a letter, signed by 21 separate organizations, was sent to Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin more than a month before the red drum kill, asking him to close the purse seine fishery within the Chesapeake Bay.

In the face of such threats, it’s not surprising that Omega is trying to downplay the dead drum and burnish its tarnished image, although to anyone who spends much time on the water, much of the release doesn’t ring true—particularly the effort to make purse seine bycatch seem like the exception rather than the rule.

The plain truth is that purse seines are non-selective gear, which will catch and kill anything unfortunate enough to be trapped by their curtains of mesh.  The movement demanding “dolphin-safe tuna” erupted after the public learned of how many marine mammals were killed by purse seiners operating in the Pacific Ocean over two decades ago.

While the purse seine fishery for Atlantic menhaden is far less destructive than the fishery that targeted Pacific tuna back in the ‘90s, it still does its share of harm.  Omega trumpets the fact that no more than 1% of the fish that it kills constitute bycatch, failing to mention that it harvests such a huge amount of menhaden that even 1% of such figure is still a lot of dead fish.

In 2019, Virginia reported landings of 332,511,812 pounds of menhaden.  Not all of those landings can be attributed to Omega’s operations, but the 2016 landings for the reduction fleet, which supplies menhaden only to Omega’s facility in Reedsville, Virginia, were 137,400 metric tons (302,915,148 pounds), not much below the 2019 Virginia purse seine landings.  So even if we round Omega's landings down to 300,000,000 pounds, to avoid exaggeration, that 1% of landings would still amount to 3,000,000 pounds of bycatch. 

To put that in perspective, if we look at five species of fish that frequently feed on and associate with menhaden schools-- striped bass, bluefish, cobia, red drum, and weakfish--we find that Virginia’s total commercial landings for such fishes are 1,389,039 pounds, 192,431 pounds, 38,711 pounds, 2,616 pounds, and 39,724 pounds, respectively, an aggregate harvest of 1,662,521 pounds of marketable fish—not much more than half of Omega’s theoretical bycatch.  (Virginia’s estimated recreational landings in 2019 are higher--224,077 pounds of striped bass, 581,458 pounds of bluefish, 1,573,485 pounds of cobia, 470,940 pounds of red drum, and 30,573 pounds of weakfish, for aggregate landings of 2,880,533 pounds—but still smaller than the 1% bycatch figure cited in Omega’s press release).

Yet the directed commercial fisheries for such species are closely regulated/  Anglers fish under relatively strict regulations as well.

Omega’s bycatch isn’t regulated or restricted in any way.

Now, I’m not asserting that Omega’s bycatch is limited to, or even primarily made up of, the five species mentioned.  Since the reduction fleet's boats aren't required to carry observers, there is no way to be certain just what the actual bycatch looks like.  However, Omega’s comment that “It is a rare event for menhaden nets to interact with red drum, or any other species,” is very, very difficult to believe.

Menhaden are magnets for predatory fish.

While I’ve never fished on a menhaden school in the Chesapeake Bay, here off Long Island, any given menhaden school might be hosting striped bass, bluefish, cobia, sharks (with threshers, sandbars, duskies, spinners, and juvenile whites the most common), or even giant bluefin tuna—not to mention humpback whales, bottlenose dolphin, and other protected species.  Anglers look for the menhaden schools because they know that such schools will concentrate any predators in the area.

It's hard to believe that Virginia menhaden schools don’t draw predators in the same way; however, it’s easy to believe that the red drum recently killed by one of the purse seiners were just doing what red drum do, following beneath a bait school and feeding from time to time, rather than doing anything unusual.  In such a situation, bycatch is inevitable.

Yet, except for public relations considerations, the reduction fleet has no reason to avoid bycatch, as it suffers no penalties if and when it occurs.

Perhaps that ought to change.

Such bycatch could never be criminalized, because criminal sanctions normally, although not always, require some level of intent.  There aren’t many strict liability crimes on the books.

Civil liability, on the other hand, presents a possibility that is already being exploited in other fields of wildlife management, where people who illegally take fish and game are required to pay, in addition to criminal penalties, civil cash restitution intended to compensate the public for the destruction of public resources. 

The Boone and Crockett Club, which focuses on big game conservation, conducted a study on the use of restitution to deter and compensate for the illegal harvest of game animals, in which it noted that

“Eighty-one percent (N=42) of all states have restitution for illegally taken big-game species.”

The federal government has required commercial fishermen who intentionally violated fisheries law to pay substantial restitution as well.

Extending such restitution requirements not only to poachers, but to those who unintentionally--but perhaps negligently or recklessly--kill marine fish like the drum described in the Omega release could inspire commercial fishermen to make a greater effort to avoid killing non-target species.

Of course, it’s easy to picture the objections of the commercial fleet.  They’re not doing anything illegal when they kill non-target species; doing so is completely accidental.

While that may be true, the situation isn’t much different from that of the hunter who, having a tag that only allows him to harvest an antlerless deer, fails to take a good enough look at the “doe” that he sees in the dim pre-dawn light, shoots as the animal walks out of sight, and ends up killing a spike buck by accident.  In a restitution state, a civil penalty would still be applied, despite no intent to break the law.

The trawler that makes a tow through an aggregation of squid, even though large fish, which turn out to be striped bass, clearly show up on its sonar, is arguably more culpable for its bycatch than the huner would be for killing the little buck.  At least the hunter thought that he was shooting at a legitimate target.

The trawler, on the other hand, knows that the off-limits bass are there.  It knows that, as it  catches its load of squid, it will  also end up catching, killing, and dumping many, many incidentally caught striped bass.  Witnesses have reported seeing slicks of dead bass, floating on the surface, that extend for “miles” behind the fishing vessel.  Such events have been reported from here on Long Island, as well as from Martha’s Vineyard.  

In North Carolina, trawlers have intentionally towed their nets through striped bass aggregations, culling out a trip limit of the most saleable fish and leaving the rest as a buffet for the gulls.

As things stand today, accidentally killing and subsequently dumping even a large number of off-limits fish is completely legal.  Other than trying to avoid the extra work involved in dumping the dead bycatch overboard, fishermen have no incentive to avoid discard mortality.

But what if the commercial fleet had to reimburse the public for the fish that are inadvertently—and often negligently—wasted?  

What if restitution had to be paid for every striped bass, every red drum, every summer flounder or croaker or weakfish or immature scup that ended up killed?

If the reimbursement price was set properly, as it is in many states that require reimbursement for big game violations, trawlers, purse seiners, and other large-volume boats would have to pay a real and hopefully prohibitive price for their dead discards.

The Boone and Crockett explains how that might work in its description of the Ohio reimbursement program.

“In Ohio, for example, the seven scoring criteria included in the wildlife value formula includes:  recreation, aesthetics, educational, state-list designation, economics, recruitment, and population dynamics.  The current, minimum value calculated by state wildlife biologists for an antlered white-tailed deer is $500.  If the buck qualifies for trophy status, the…gross score [for its measured antlers] is plugged into an equation…to determine the trophy restitution value.  Therefore, if a violator is convicted of poaching a white-tailed deer with a gross score of 180”, he/she would have to pay a $500 base value penalty plus an additional restitution of $10,560.”

The restitution for each fish discarded dead wouldn’t have to be nearly that high.  Perhaps the going ex vessel price for the fish, plus an additional restitution amount linked to size and reproductive potential.  So the price for accidentally killing a 20-pound striped bass might be $80 or $90 ($4.00 or $4.50 per pound) with nothing more added, while killing a 50-pound fish might incur a $200 or $225 base rate plus another $200 or $300 to compensate the public for the lost trophy and reproductive capacity.

Numbers like that add up quickly, and would probably convince any trawler that making a tow through a concentration of off-limits striped bass would be a very poor economic decision. 

Down in Virginia, paying similar restitution for dead red drum—even though many of them were too large to have any market value at all—could well be seen as an unacceptable financial risk that made fishing in the ocean, rather than in the Chesapeake Bay, where the purse seiners are limited to an annual landings cap of 51,000 metric tons/1,124,360 pounds, the preferred economic alternative.  (While there is still the possibility of dead discards when fishing offshore, there less of a chance that anyone will witness the kill, something likely to make captains monitor the net less “attentively” and which also leads to the question, “If no one sees you dumping a load of red drum or striped bass overboard, did any bycatch occur?”)

 The commercial fleet might well call such outcomes unfair, but is it any more equitable to allow a handful of people to not only profit from a public resource without paying the sort of royalties or separation fees associated with taking timber or minerals from public land, but also to incidentally diminish the abundance of other public resources and so impair the public’s ability to enjoy them?

Restitution fees would also create incentives, as they would have the least impact on diligent fishermen, who are willing to avoid setting nets at times and places where bycatch is likely, and/or are willing to invest in new technology such as the bycatch-reducing Ruhle Trawl.  But they would impose a meaningful economic cost on those who are willing to kill significant quantities of non-target species in order to net a profit.  

Restitution fees would also favor fishermen who use more selective and/or less damaging gear, such as traps, pound nets, or hook and line, which allow for a very high proportion of live releases (admittedly, with some low level of discard mortality), over those who fish less selective gear designed to capture large quantities of fish at one time, which often kills a large proportion of anything that ends up in their nets.

Restitution payments may sound like a radical concept, and when applied to bycatch-related mortality, they are. 

But they are also widely employed in other wildlife management scenarios, and if applied to large-scale fisheries, would provide an economic incentive to do the right thing.  That would be a sharp contrast from the current situation, where doing the wrong thing often carries the greater financial reward.




Sunday, July 24, 2022



Marine protected areas—or, to be more precise, those marine protected areas which either completely prohibit or severely restrict fishing activities—have been in the news since the late 1990s.

Back then, a number of marine conservation organizations, encouraged by the big foundations that provide much of their funding, were promoting the alleged benefits of shutting down fishing in a significant part of the coastal ocean.  Here in the continental United States, the effort didn’t get very far, with the two most-debated closures taking place in a remote area of the Florida Keys and off the coast of California.

After five years or a little more, the debate fell into a sort of stalemate.  Advocates of marine protected areas achieved a few wins, and managed to stymie the recreational fishing community’s efforts to pass “freedom to fish” laws at either the state or federal level.  At the same time, representatives of the recreational sector managed to get freedom to fish language inserted into the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which states that

“with respect to any closure of an area under this Act which prohibits all fishing, [the fishery management plan must] ensure that such closure is based upon the best scientific information available; includes criteria to assess the conservation benefit of the closed area; establishes a review of the closed area’s performance that is consistent with the purposes of the closed area; and is based upon an assessment of the benefits and impacts of the closure, including its size, in relation to other management measures (either alone or in combination with such measures), including the benefits and impacts of limiting access to users of the area, overall fishing activity, fishery science, and marine conservation.  [internal formatting omitted]”

That language set a fairly heavy burden on marine protected area proponents.  It prevented them from implementing closures based on mere hope that such closures would benefit fish populations; instead, they needed to demonstrate that imposing a closure to protect fish populations was an approach based on the best available science, that there was a link between the closure and a particular management purpose, that criteria for evaluating the closure’s effectiveness in achieving that purpose were put in place, and that a closure, rather than other management measures, represented the best approach to managing the resources in question.

Not surprisingly, few if any fully closed areas were adopted in fishery management plans.  Instead, the regional fishery management councils tended to protect limited areas, often because of their importance as spawning areas for certain species, and prohibited fishing for such species, while fishing for other species not particularly benefitted by a closure could continue.

However, Magnuson-Stevens' new language restricting the use of closed areas only applied to management actions taken pursuant to such statute; it didn’t restrict the creation of no-fishing zones, including very large ones, pursuant to other laws. 

On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush created the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument (now known as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument), which at the time of its creation was the largest marine protected area in the world, extending across nearly 140,000 square miles of ocean.  Fishing, except for fishing connected to native Hawaiian cultural practices, was prohibited within its waters.

President Bush created three other national marine monuments in the Western Pacific which severely restricted fishing activity, the Rose Atoll, Marianas Trench, and Pacific Remote Islands national monuments.  President Barak Obama enlarged the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in 2014, and quadrupled the size of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2016, further expanding areas where fishing was prohibited.

However, efforts to put areas of the ocean off-limits to fishermen slowed down after that, at least until a few years ago, when the so-called “30x30” movement—promoted by organizations who are seeking to place 30% of the Earth’s lands and waters in some sort of protected states by the year 2030—began to pick up steam.  Proponents of big no-fishing zones again became active, calling for “fully protected” or “highly protected” areas of ocean to be set aside.

A paper published at about the same time, titled “A global network of marine protected areas for food,” appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and generally argued for the benefits of marine protected areas, but also noted that

“While it is unlikely that MPAs can significantly increase yield in well-managed fisheries, it is widely agreed that strategically designed MPAs can increase yield in overfished fisheries…Therefore, in regions where fisheries management is lacking, highly protected MPAs may significantly improve both fisheries catch and conservation if designed well.”

While we might disagree with some of the decisions made by regional fishery management councils, it’s hard to imagine anyone—particularly a commercial or recreational fishermen—describe the federal waters of the United States as a region “where fisheries management is lacking.”  Thus, the argument for implementing highly restrictive marine protected areas in U.S. waters seems fairly weak.

Yet, increasing yield from existing fisheries isn’t the only imaginable goal of marine resource managers.  There are a host of marine species, ranging from blue whales to petrels and other pelagic birds, which resource managers are attempting to protect.  It has been argued that such species might benefit if regulators closed off part of the continental shelf or the adjacent open ocean from most human activities, including fishing.

Now, a recently-released paper suggests that the sort of small marine protected areas most often imposed on coastal fishermen do little or no good for large marine animals, and that even larger MPAs fail to provide much protection over the course of many animals’ travels.

The paper, “Mismatches in scale between highly mobile marine megafauna and marine protected areas,” was published in the July 20, 2022 edition of the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.  It begins with the statement that

“Marine protected areas (MPAs), particularly large MPAs, are increasing in numbers and size around the globe in part to facilitate the conservation of marine megafauna under the assumption that large-scale MPAs better align with vagile life histories; however, this alignment is not well established.”

In conducting their study, the researchers tracked 36 species of sharks, whales, seals, turtles, and birds, (I was disappointed to find that their definition of “megafauna” did not include teleost fish such as bluefin tuna, blue marlin, or swordfish, all of which grow as large or larger than the blue and mako sharks that were included in the data set) noting the size of their range as well as the core areas within such range.  Such ranges were then compared to the size and coverage of marine protected areas, to provide some idea of how such MPAs might benefit each species.

Some species’ ranges were deemed to be “vast,” including that of the blue shark (home range 4,388,000 square kilometers, core range 2,338,647 km2), the mako (species not specified, but presumably the shortfin, given the number of samples, with a home range of 4,405,000 km2 and a core range of 2,053,393 km2), and the blue whale (home range 1,913,000 km2, core range 564,335 km2).  Others, such as the humpback whale, merely had a “large” range (home, 685,000 km2; core, 288,547 km2).

Either way, such animals wander around a lot of ocean.

Thus, marine protected areas can only provide very limited protection.  The paper completely discounts the value of MPAs of less than 100 km2 when it comes to marine megafauna, although such areas can create benefits for less widely traveled species, which includes many fish (but not, I might add—although the paper didn’t—highly migratory fish species which share a propensity for wide-ranging travel with the blue and mako sharks).

While a large enough MPA might, in theory, protect a species with a “vast” home range, creating such huge closures isn’t practical for, as the study notes,

“MPA size quickly hits a ceiling of what is practical and affordable to implement.   For example, in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, (PMNM), one of the largest MPAs worldwide, the home ranges of three intermediate-ranged breeding seabird species were nearly fully enclosed in protected waters.

“Nevertheless, this expansive MPA with a footprint greater than 1.5 million km2, remained too small to provide much at sea protection for two vast-ranging albatross species that breed there, despite protection of critical seabird habitat being cited as part of the designation of this MPA.”

The impact of MPAs, particularly smaller MPAs, on highly migratory marine animals becomes particularly relevant when smaller protected areas are proposed, and purported benefits to whales, turtles, seabirds and similar species are used to justify closing such areas to fishing.  While the paper makes it clear that the siting and networking of multiple small MPAs can add up to significant protections for the animals studied, it emphasizes

“the importance of identifying critical habitats throughout annual cycles and understanding migratory connectivity of populations for effective area-based conservation for marine megafauna…many, if not most large- and vast-ranged species aggregate seasonally and by life stage, sex, or season, and these aggregations that occur at smaller spatial scales have greater potential to benefit from MPAs.”

The logical extension of that situation is that instead of creating no-take MPAs that are in place throughout the year, it makes more sense to impose time and area closures that protect animals when they are likely to be concentrated in a particular place, but allow extensive access when the protected animals are engaged in a different phase of their annual migration.

That’s a particularly important thing to remember when creating new managed areas.  For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently taking comments on whether Hudson Canyon, located off New York and New Jersey, should be designated as a National Marine Sanctuary.  So far, only a handful of comments have been received.  However, it is likely that most of the large marine conservation groups will be taking positions, which will probably be submitted at the last minute to limit public response to such positions.

While nothing is certain, it would be far from surprising if a large proportion, perhaps most, of those organizations will not only be supporting the sanctuary designation, but also requesting that the sanctuary become a highly or fully protected area.  Yet while, as NOAA notes, Hudson Canyon is

“an ecological hotspot for a vast array of marine wildlife,”

most such wildlife is transient; the fish, marine mammals, and birds that often abound there follow the movements of baitfish, and the baitfish follow the flows of warm and cold water that are constantly moving across the continental shelf.  As far as anyone knows, Hudson Canyon is not a pupping or nursery area for any species of shark, nor is it a seasonal feeding ground for marine mammals.  Instead, it is just an oftentimes rich bit of water that can, when conditions are right, hold an impressive variety of life.

That means that it probably makes real sense to protect Hudson Canyon from any sort of mineral exploration and extraction that might degrade sensitive bottom habitat; it does not mean that it, or similar pieces of richly populated water up and down the coast, should be subject to particularly onerous fishing regulations that are different from those imposed elsewhere.

Currently, NOAA has no plans to impose fishing regulations in Hudson Canyon that differ from the regulations imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service elsewhere on the coast.  But public comment could conceivably change that position although, at this point, that’s probably not likely.

Still, given the limited benefits that MPAs provide to wide-ranging marine species, we shouldn’t even have to worry about someone trying to close down more water to fishing access, whether that water is in Hudson Canyon, or anywhere else on the U.S. coast.

The upside to any such action just isn't there.



Thursday, July 21, 2022



There are a lot of saltwater anglers out there, although estimates of the actual number can be a little hard to find. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t try to estimate the number of fishermen, but instead counts trips, which are more relevant to the fishery management process.  It’s most recent annual report, Fisheries of the United States, reveals that in 2020, recreational saltwater fishermen made nearly 200,000,000 trips.  Close to 40% of those trips—more than 80,000,000—were taken in Florida, with North Carolina (16,400,000), New Jersey (16,000,000), New York (14,800,000) and South Carolina (8,700,000) rounding out the top five.

Those anglers catch a lot of fish—just about one billion—of which about one-third are kept, although the patterns of harvest and release vary from state to state.  In New Jersey, for example, nearly 84% of the fish caught by anglers were released, a fact that is probably largely attributable to size limits for popular species such as summer flounder and black sea bass.  States hosting a high percentage of anglers who primarily pursue “sport” fish, such as striped bass, bluefish, permit, and red drum, as opposed to “meat” fish like flounder, scup, snapper, and grouper, also see high release percentages.  On the other hand, Hawaii, with its tradition of subsistence fishing and relatively lax approach to regulations, lies at the other end of the spectrum, with releases comprising a mere 13% of the overall catch.

It’s clear from those numbers that anglers need to be managed in order to preserve the health of fish stocks, but it’s also clear that setting a national management policy can be difficult, as angler preferences and expectations can vary from state to state, and even among different constituencies within a single state.

Every four years, beginning in 2010, NMFS and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission hold a “Recreational Fishing Summit” in an effort to get some kind of handle on anglers’ thoughts, attitudes, and concerns.  I’ve attended them all, and have watched them evolve from what was largely a platform that the big industry associations used to spread their views into an event that reaches down into the grassroots and comes up with meaningful feedback—which doesn’t always conform to the industry line.

I wrote a little bit about the 2022 Summit right after it was held last spring, although those essays were certainly colored by my personal views.  However, NMFS and ASMFC have recently released the official National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Summit 2022, which provides a more comprehensive and more objective review of what went on.

It makes an interesting read. 

One of the first sections of the report noted that

“Across the four sessions, several cross-cutting themes emerged.  These underlying themes will be considered as NOAA Fisheries and ASMFC review the ideas and suggestions from the specific sessions.”

Those two sentences, as simple as they might be, underscore the worth of the Summit, because the “cross-cutting themes” described came from individual anglers, charter boat operators, and other people in the fishing community whose concerns aren’t necessarily represented by the big organizations with the staff and the lobbyists to get and hold managers’ ears; although those folks were present at the Summit, too.  But with everyone sitting in the same room, their voices couldn’t override those of the anglers they claim to represent.

The themes in question were described as “Human Dimensions,” “Shifting Data Needs,” “Tradeoffs in Management, Conservation, and Opportunity,” and “Community Engagement and Trust.”  All are important, and all four were given due consideration at the Summit and in the report; however, it was the Human Dimensions and Tradeoffs discussions that explored the most new and, at least for some of the managers present, unexpected ground.

As the report noted in the initial “Human Dimensions” section,

“There is broad recognition that climate change is affecting traditional angling opportunities, and in order to effectively adapt, more attention is needed to understand and regularly incorporate human dimension considerations into decision making.  This ranges from assessing the intrinsic values of fishing to better understand [optimum yield], to considering cultural practices associated with non-commercial fisheries in the Pacific Islands…”

Those considerations span a far wider gap than it may initially seem, as the “intrinsic values of fishing” discussed at the summit included the concept of managing for abundance and, depending on the fishery, for catch and release, while in the Pacific Islands, subsistence fishing, and sharing one’s catch with others in the community, have deep cultural roots; as one Pacific Islander said at the meeting, “We don’t play with our food.”

But Pacific cultures aside, the fact that managers are even considering a concept like “the intrinsic values of fishing” represents a big move forward.  At the end of one breakout group discussion, one of the professional managers present admitted that she never gave much thought to the concept of optimum yield before, and more-or-less associated it with landing as many fish as the law and science deemed prudent; the notion that optimum yield should be set at a lower level that provided greater opportunities to interact with the fish, even if it meant a lower harvest, was something completely new.

Yet it’s not a new issue.  As the report notes, the National Academy of Science panel that reviewed the Marine Recreational Information Program recommended that

“NOAA and the [regional fishery management] Councils should develop a process for engaging recreational fisheries stakeholders in a more in-depth discussion of [optimum yield] and how it can be used to identify and prioritize management objectives that are better suited to the cultural, economic and conservation goals of the angling community.”

That’s something that has yet to be done; so far, just about every fishery has been forced to fit into the Procrustean Bed of yield, a fact clearly exemplified by the most recent amendment to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Bluefish Fishery Management Plan; even though the bluefish fishery is overwhelmingly recreational, and recreational fishermen release about two-thirds of all bluefish caught, that plan provides that if the recreational sector doesn’t kill its entire harvest limit, the uncaught portion (provided the stock is not overfished) will be transferred to the commercial fishery.  The concept of managing for an abundance of fish in the water, which provides greater recreational opportunities, was never seriously considered.

The report captures this problem in its summary of the presentation made by Michael Leonard, Vice President of Government Affairs for the American Sportfishing Association.

“…Recreational fisheries sometimes focus on maximizing harvest and sometimes it is about maximizing abundance/encounters and fishing opportunities.

“[The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act] and the National Standards [for Fishery Conservation and Management included therein] specify that setting catch limits below [maximum sustainable yield] is allowable when other factors are considered.  However, Mr. Leonard believes this has not been put into practice by most councils.  A review and analysis of the use of [optimum yield] in U.S. fisheries found that current [annual catch limit] and [optimum yield] specification processes rarely account for social and economic factors, or ecosystem considerations, and if they do, it is on an ad-hoc, species-specific basis.

“Catch and release is being viewed as underutilizing the resource just because they are catching below the [annual catch limits].  This may drive a desire to transfer allocation.  However, there are different motivations within and across fisheries that should be considered…”

While all of that discussion seems promising, there has yet to be much evidence that fishery managers are willing to stop worshiping at the altar of the highest permissible yield, even if anglers ask them to take precisely that action.  Nonetheless, the first step in addressing a problem is admitting that it exists, so the Summit’s discussion of optimum yield represented some kind of step forward.

The discussions that fell within the “Tradeoffs in Management, Conservation, and Opportunity” theme sounded somewhat similar notes, with “flexibility” in management being one of the key issues.

For many years, “flexibility” has been a shibboleth in the fisheries arena, used by what I might politely term “conservation skeptics” to connote management measures that allow a greater harvest of fish than either the science or current law would allow.  Thus, in repeated sessions of Congress, we have seen the repeated, so-far unsuccessful introduction of a bill called the “Strengthening Coastal Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” which is essentially intended to cut the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens off at the knees, and free fishermen from many of the current law’s science-based management requirements.

But many recreational fishermen now realize that such science-based management has helped to restore once-overfished stocks, understand the need for good conservation, and are leery of efforts to weaken the management system.  Thus, as the report notes,

“Management flexibility was viewed as a double-edged sword by various stakeholders in the recreational fishing community, where some were optimistic about its potential, and others expressed apprehension.  There was traction around the desire of anglers to maintain fishing opportunities (i.e, the experience) over catching certain amounts of target species.  However, there was also a shared concern around the ability of the management system to shift to new flexible management models.”

That’s a somewhat different perspective from the one often portrayed by groups such as the Center for Sportfishing Policy, or anglers’ rights groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association or the smaller, but similarly disposed Recreational Fishing Alliance, which frequently tout “flexibility” as a way to maximize anglers’ landings, their time on the water, and their contribution to coastal economies.

Thus, once again, the Summit demonstrated its worth by letting the anglers speak for themselves.

Some of anglers’ concerns about flexibility came out in the comments of Tony Friedrich, Vice President and Policy Director of the American Saltwater Guides Association, who, the report states,

“noted that abundance equals opportunity, and that is what drives fishing trips (i.e., people want to fish when fish are around)…

“One example of management reform is the development of the [Harvest Control Rules] by the [Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council] and ASMFC…

“…ASGA as a whole is risk-averse, but they are open to other flexible management approaches, as long as they do not jeopardize stock stability.”

That is an important qualification.  It came up again in a breakout group discussion, where

“One participant expressed concern that ASMFC conservation equivalency is a form of flexibility that is intended to address variability in states’ needs, but can liberalize measures more than appropriate and may lead to overages.  Some participants discussed how [the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council] is exploring flexibility, but has strong sideboards for how far that flexibility can go. Whereas other participants perceived the ASMFC as having more discretion.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that flexibility didn’t have strong supporters.  In another breakout session, someone reportedly suggested that

“the current system of overfishing limits, [acceptable biological catch], and [annual catch limits] does not always work.  These measures should be considered a starting place, although they may also be used in reverse.  For example, participants suggested defining the desired outcomes, and then calculating the [annual catch limit] to achieve those outcomes.”

I wasn’t in the room when that was said, so I’m unaware of the context.  However, if someone was suggesting that we first set size limits, bag limits and seasons acceptable to a particular constituency, then adopt an annual catch limit that would result from such measures, without reference to a species’ biology (as such biology is the basis for the current approach), any fishery so managed is likely to have a very rocky future.

But in the end, that wasn’t the critical point.  The point was that the Summit generated a lot of thought and a lot of angler input, and allowed individuals to provide that input without being filtered through some organization’s lens.  It gave NMFS and the ASMFC an opportunity to hear stakeholders’ views from the stakeholders themselves, which is always a good thing.

If you didn’t have the chance to attend, you ought to click on the link near the top of this page, and peruse the report for yourself.  Even if you decide not to read it all, it is likely to stimulate thought.

And thinking can never be bad.





Sunday, July 17, 2022



Last Friday started out well.

I took some shark researchers from Stony Brook University out to the 20-fathom line south of Fire Island, hoping to find a few fish for them to tag.  Mike Mucha, my long-time friend and fishing companion, came along to give me a much-welcomed hand; it’s always good to have an experienced angler on board who knows how to “wire” a fish, taking the leader in hand once it comes within reach and dragging the fish the last grudging 15 feet to boatside.

Mike and I have been fishing offshore together for about 40 years, so we don’t have to do a lot of talking to get the lines baited and out, or to deal with the organized chaos once a shark takes the bait and lines are cleared for the fight.

So things felt pretty normal when, after maybe an hour and a half of drifting and chumming, the reel on the long float line sounded off, at which point Mike snatched up the rod and began convincing a smallish shark to swim toward the boat.  I put on the gloves and grabbed the leader when it came close, quickly dragging what I first thought was a sandbar shark within reach of the biologists on board.

Except as we started to take another look at the shark, we realized that it wasn’t a sandbar.

The dorsal fin was just a little too low, and it started a little too far back on the fish’s body.  One of the scientists gripped the fish’s pectoral fins, planning to flip it over on its back and put it in tonic immobility (turning many sharks belly-up will cause them to become largely immobile, which makes it much easier to take the desired blood and tissue samples and insert an acoustic tag into the fish’s body cavity), and noted that the shark’s fins felt very slimy.

Sandbar sharks’ fins usually feel rough and dry.

We started looking at the fish a little closer, and quickly realized that we weren’t dealing with a sandbar, but rather with a dusky shark.

That fact, by itself, didn’t come as a particular surprise.  This season, I’ve heard of a lot of dusky sharks being caught. 

Another research team reported catching five in a single day off Southampton.  The scientists that I help out had caught some duskies this year while fishing with someone else.  I had a surfcaster send me a photo of a shark that he caught from a Long Island beach, asking me what it was.  The mid-dorsal ridge and overall configuration made it clear that fish was a dusky, too.  And anglers fishing menhaden around harried-looking schools not far from Fire Island’s beaches have been steadily hooking dusky sharks while in search of other species.

When Mike and I began to regularly fish offshore in the early/mid 1980s, dusky sharks were regularly seen on the offshore grounds.  Little ones were frequently caught by anglers chumming for bluefish; every now and then, an unsuspecting bluefisherman would get a surprise when line started flying off his reel as a big dusky made off with a bait intended for a much smaller target.  

When I used to fish for cod during the summer on Cox’s Ledge, off the Rhode Island coast, it wasn’t unusual to see a big dusky—a fish that might weigh 500 pounds—try to steal a hooked fish before it could be brought aboard.  Shark fishermen sometimes caught duskies much larger than that; the now-defunct Babylon (NY) Tuna Club had one record of a member landing a dusky that exceeded 800.

But duskies haven’t fared well in recent years; both bottom longlines targeting sharks and pelagic longlines targeting swordfish and tuna have killed many of the big predators, often by accident.  Recreational fishermen killed a smaller but still significant number, sometimes eating their meat, but often entering the fish in tournaments, or weighing them in and taking photos, then letting the fish go to waste. The population declined by about 80%.

The once-common dusky shark became scarce.  Before last Friday, Mike and I hadn’t caught one in over 20 years, despite fishing for sharks on a regular basis, in waters where duskies were once very abundant. 

In 2000, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed dusky sharks as a “prohibited species” which may not be retained by commercial nor recreational fishermen.  In 2017, the National Marine Fisheries Service,

“based on the results of the 2016 stock assessment update for Atlantic dusky sharks…determined that the dusky shark remains overfished and is experiencing overfishing,”

and amended its Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan by adopting measures intended to reduce dusky shark fishing mortality by 35% in an effort to rebuild the stock.  According to NMFS,

“The updated projections estimated that the target rebuilding years range from 2084-2204, with a median of 2107.  In order to achieve rebuilding by 2107 with a 50% probability, the final models project that [the fishing mortality rate] on the stock would have to be reduced by 24-80% (median = 35%) from 2015 levels.  While NMFS typically uses a 70% probability of rebuilding by the deadline for Atlantic highly migratory shark species, the 2016 update has a higher level of uncertainty than other shark assessments and presents a more pessimistic view of stock status than was expected based on review of all available information…”

The amendment to the management plan implemented

“shark endorsement and circle hook requirements in the recreational Atlantic shark fisheries; shark release protocols in the pelagic longline fishery; dusky shark identification and safe handling training in in the HMS pelagic longline, bottom longline, and shark gillnet fisheries; outreach and fleet communication protocol in HMS pelagic longline, bottom longline, and shark gillnet fisheries; and a circle hook requirement in the directed shark bottom longline fishery.”

The marine conservation organization Oceana sued NMFS, claiming that such regulations were inadequate to rebuild the dusky shark population, but the court failed to uphold their challenge.  Last month, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision.

It’s probably too early to know whether NMFS’ latest efforts to rebuild dusky sharks has a real chance of succeeding, and few people alive today will still be around when we reach the 2107 target rebuilding date.

However, it’s probably worth noting that the sandbar shark, a close relative of the dusky, was also placed on the prohibited list in 2000.  While the sandbar’s situation wasn’t quite as dire, as the fish is primarily an inshore species, and not as vulnerable to pelagic longlines, they are vulnerable to inshore fisheries outside of the United States. Sandbars remain overfished, with current estimates advising that, with no fishing at all, the stock won’t recover until 2071.

Even so, Mike and I have seen sandbar abundance follow a trajectory that, with luck, might be emulated by the dusky shark population.  There were plenty around in the ‘80s, but numbers quickly declined.  For maybe a decade, we didn’t catch any at all.  But then, beginning around 2010, a few started showing up in our chum slicks.  In 2015, fishing south of Shinnecock, Long Island, I caught and released the largest sandbar that I ever hooked, a female that measured an honest 7-foot fork length, and probably weighted around 200 pounds.

Then, in 2018, while fishing with the Stony Brook team, we had a day when we were surrounded by sandbars; fishing with just a single rod, I could wait until the team was just about working up a fish, at which point I’d drop down one bait, hook another one, and the sampling and tagging process could begin again.

Without  hard data, it’s impossible to say with any certainty that sandbar abundance is increasing, but what I’ve been seen here on Long Island suggests that is so.

Getting back to last Friday, just about immediately after we released the first fish, and got the lines back over the side, something—by its behavior, I strongly suspect a hammerhead—chewed up a couple of baits and gave us a quick look at its dorsal fin, sticking out  of the water maybe 50 feet away from the boat.

So I set out a smaller bait on a smaller hook, intending to match a hammerhead’s smaller mouth.  That bait wasn’t in the water for more than 20 minutes before the reel started to sound as something took off with the small mackerel fillets that we hung just a few feet below the surface. 

The fish turned out to be a little dusky, measured to have a fork length of just 76 millimeters—about 30 inches—and was very possibly just born this spring.  Even though it will probably be close to 20 years before that shark can produce pups of its own, the fact that we’re seeing a lot of young fish—and no large ones—suggests that management measures intended to rebuild the stock might finally be bearing fruit.

When it comes to fishery management, a few anecdotal reports from a small section of coast doesn’t amount to anything of real value.  And even if there is a slight improvement in the duskies' situation, it will probably be close to 100 years--if not far more--before the stock can be rebuilt.

Still, the appearance of small dusky sharks all along the Long Island coast can’t be seen as anything other than positive news.

While it’s still too soon to say with real confidence, it just might be that NMFS efforts to rebuild the dusky shark stock may be having the desired effect, and dusky sharks will slowly be returning to the waters off the nation's East Coast.