Thursday, September 29, 2022



Recreational fishery management has its own language with some terms, like “optimum yield” and “fishing mortality target,” unique to the management arena, while other words are taken from everyday speech, although they might be repurposed a bit. 

If we began sorting those terms alphabetically, it wouldn’t be long before we got to “allocation,” which is pretty important to everyone, because it’s all about which sector—commercial or recreational, with the for-hire fleet sometimes considered as well—gets to kill the largest proportion of the fish.

Allocation discussions that involve recreational fishing are usually very intense, but just about all of them can be broken down into the same simple terms:  The commercial fishing sector is awarded some proportion of the landings of a particular species, and the recreational fishing sector wants to take some or all of those landings for itself (on rare occasions, it works the other way, with commercial fishermen seeking a larger share of the pie, but that does not happen often and such efforts are generally very short-lived).

Typically, the angling folks might be seeking to make a popular recreational species, such as striped bass, a “gamefish,” and preclude all commercial harvest.  They’ll argue that recreational fishing yields greater economic benefits (which is probably true); that there are so many recreational fishermen that they could easily kill the entire annual catch limit themselves (which is hardly a recommendation); and that people who either won’t or can’t catch their own dinner aren’t entitled to wild fish, but should be happy purchasing whatever the fish farms turn out. 

Other recreational advocates aren’t looking to take the whole hog; they’re willing to leave the snout and the ears and maybe the trotters for the commercial folks, so long as they get all of the hams and the ribs and the bacon.  

People who take that sort of stand make the same economic arguments as the “gamefish” proponents, but often spin them around the proposition that because the recreational sector is growing, and generating more effort, the allocation should be shifted to accommodate the greater demand.  (It's interesting to imagine what their response would be if the National Marine Fisheries Service embraced the mirror image of that argument:  What if NMFS announced, let's say, that because the commercial summer flounder fishery is a limited entry fishery, there are quite a few commercial fishermen that would like to participate but can’t get a permit, so the agency was going to issue some additional commercial permits to meet the demand, and compensate by increasing the commercial quota at the expense of the recreational sector?  Does anyone believe that the same "the sector is growing" argument that is used by various recreational organizations would go unchallenged if it was used against them?)

The Gulf red snapper fishery has seen some of the most blatant examples of that sort of thinking, with Brad Gentner, a fisheries economist who has been associated with anglers’ rights groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association and Center for Sportfishing Policy, testifying before a committee of the United States Senate that

“As fish populations increase, so does recreational effort and catch and, as fish populations decrease, effort and catch decrease as well.  Abundance drives effort.  Effort drives spending and value for small businesses.  Which should be a good thing, but at the moment that value is not only being ignored, it is being squandered.

“During rebuilding, effort increases as the stock increases.  Because the stock is increasing, catch per unit of effort also increases, meaning it takes less effort to catch the same weight of fish as the stock grows.  In fisheries with inadequate recreational allocations, this can induce a downward spiral of ever tightening regulation in the face of rebounding stocks when the recreational sector is managed like a commercial fishery.  The original allocation of red snapper is widely accepted to be totally flawed…This flawed and unfair allocation has created this downward spiral that has all but crushed the recreational red snapper fishery and the businesses supported by recreational red snapper fishing, while the stock continues to grow rapidly…” 

The sense of entitlement reflected in such comments is striking.  Nonetheless, spokesmen for the recreational sector love to speak about allocation—so long as they’re the ones getting the fish.

And before someone perusing our hypothetical list of recreational fishery management terms even got to “allocation,” they would have come to the word “access,” another term popular with the anglers' rights folks.

For most of my life on and around the water, “access” meant having a place to fish.  If a town closed a waterfront park after sunset, you lost “access” to striped bass fishing during the most productive hours of the night.  If a state or county park closed a long stretch of beach to motorized vehicles, you might lose “access” to an inlet or other productive fishing spot located miles from the nearest parking lot, because getting there on your own two legs, while wearing a set of waders and carrying all of the requisite gear (not to mention getting any fish you chose to retain back to a distant parking lot while they’re still in fit condition to eat) was a practical near-impossibility.

Thus, for most of my life, fighting for “access” was a good and noble thing, because it meant nothing less than fighting for your ability to reach fishable water.

But “access” is one of those words that has become repurposed in recent times.  The big recreational organizations understand that they’re not going to get too far if they announce that their goal is to permanently remove more fish from the ocean; that just doesn’t have the sort of benevolent ring that politicians will rush to support.  So they instead use the word “access” as a euphemism for “dead fish.”

Thus, in a March 2020 press release, we see the Center for Sportfishing Policy complain that

“Over the last decade, anglers have been baffled by NOAA Fisheries’ decision to radically limit public access to red snapper despite the plentiful number of fish they are encountering on the water…

“’Effectively eliminating the South Atlantic red snapper season is a prime example of federal fisheries management failure,’ said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy.  ‘Unlike a buffet line, anglers cannot choose which fish to reel up from the deep, and when they have to throw red snapper back, many fish inevitably die…’  [emphasis added]”

Elsewhere in their announcement, the Center for Sportfishing Policy admits that recreational fishermen released over 3 million red snapper off Florida’s east coast, so it seems that, contrary to the Center’s allegations, anglers must have pretty good access to the fish—they have no problem getting out on the water and catching them.  

What federal fishery managers have limited is not access, but anglers’ ability to toss the snapper they have successfully accessed into their coolers and take them home; the agency was forced to make the difficult choice between requiring anglers to release most of the snapper they caught while targeting other species, knowing that a significant percentage of those snapper would die after release, or allowing anglers to take more red snapper home while also killing a significant percentage of the snapper that are caught and released while targeting other species.

Thus, the issue presented isn’t the one cited by the Center—preventing anglers’ access to the resource—but rather, preventing anglers from retaining their catch.  A more forthright spokesman might have referenced “NOAA Fisheries’ decision prohibiting anglers from killing their catch and removing it from the spawning stock,” but such a statement wouldn’t play well on the afternoon news, and might provide non-anglers with too clear an understanding of what was really going on.

So, “access” was used.

But while the organized recreational fishing community might be very willing to demand bigger allocations and more of what they refer to as “access,” there’s one more A-word out there, and it’s one that they try to avoid:  Accountability.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act very clearly states that all fishery management plans must

“establish a mechanism for specifying annual catch limits in the plan (including a multiyear plan), implementing regulations, or annual specifications, at a level such that overfishing does not occur in the fishery, including measures to ensure accountability.  [emphasis added]”

Regional fishery management councils have typically done a very good job of holding the commercial sector accountable for its overages; in most cases, when the commercial catch limit is exceeded, fishermen are expected to pay back the overage in the next season.

Of course, the data on commercial fishery landings is generally far better than recreational fishery data.  Commercial landings are generally recorded in something close to real time, and verified by weigh-out records at the dealers which purchase the fish.  

Recreational fishery data is generated by the Marine Recreational Information Program, and always includes some level of uncertainty, known as the Percent Standard Error (PSE).  In the case of infrequently encountered species, or of data maintained at the state, wave, and/or sector level, instead of coastwide, the PSE can be dismayingly high—high enough that, if recreational fishermen were required to pay back overages every time that MRIP data suggested that the recreational harvest limit to be exceeded, anglers could find their annual limits reduced even in years when, once the PSE was taken into account, they might have actually underfished the harvest limit by an appreciable amount.

Managers classify the issues created by the PSE in the category of “management uncertainty,” which is pretty much what it sounds like.  But while scientific uncertainty must be considered by the regional fishery management councils’ scientific and statistical committees each year when they set the acceptable biological catch for each managed stock, management uncertainty is often ignored, even though NMFS’ published guidelines state that it should be considered when setting annual catch limits. 

Because regional fishery management councils frequently fail to consider management uncertainty, recreational fishermen have chronically exceeded the recreational harvest limit for some stocks.  Such recreational overages became so severe in the Gulf of Mexico recreational red snapper fishery that a federal district court ordered NMFS to impose some sort of accountability measures on the recreational sector, which ultimately took the form of an annual catch target that implemented the NMFS guidelines, and created a harvest buffer that took management uncertainty into account.

In most other fisheries, however, the courts were not involved, and buffers were not imposed.  

The recreational black sea bass fishery, managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, may be the worst offender.  Anglers exceeded their recreational harvest limit in eight out of the eleven years between 2010 and 2020, sometimes by a very large margin, and faced only minimal accountability for such overages.  In some years, recreational management measures were made more restrictive, but almost never restrictive enough to constrain harvest to the recreational limit.  In other years, the overages were just ignored, and management measures left at the status quo.

At one advisory panel meeting, held about a year ago, a commercial black sea bass fisherman from Maryland argued that

“Somebody needs to hold these people accountable…To keep rewarding these people and giving them more fish is never going to solve the problem.”

But such words went unheeded.  In June of this year, at a joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC, managers voted to adopt a so-called “harvest control rule” that effectively rewarded black sea bass anglers for their past transgressions,  limiting the severity of any recreational harvest reductions in the event that anglers exceeded their harvest limit again.

Despite the clear language in Magnuson-Stevens, holding anglers accountable for taking too many fish is, unless a stock has been declared to be overfished and/or is subject to a rebuilding plan, just not something that managers seem willing to do, no matter how quick they might be to impose accountability measures on the commercial sector.

The regional fishery management councils are not alone in their aversion to angler accountability.

In August 2021, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board considered including a measure in Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass that would have held states accountable if their conservation equivalent regulations—regulations that did not match the coastwide regulations adopted by the Management Board, but supposedly achieved the same quantified level of conservation—didn’t actually achieve the needed reductions in fishing mortality.

Although the concept received significant support from the striped bass angling community, which believed that the conservation equivalency process was being gamed by certain states in order to win a lesser reduction in harvest than that required in the management plan, state fishery managers generally opposed the concept of recreational accountability, and it was removed from further consideration in the amendment development process.

State fishery managers generally avoid recreational accountability with the same fervor that a vampire avoids holy water, garlic, and sharp wooden stakes, and that aversion isn’t likely to end any time soon.

But some people are starting to get tired of it.

Most recently, commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico have gone to court to oppose a reallocation of red grouper quota, based on revised estimates of recreational landings during the base years, that awards more fish to the recreational sector, arguing in part that the higher recreational quota would harm not only the commercial sector, but the grouper themselves, because anglers frequently exceed their catch limit and are not held accountable when overages occur.

But fishermen suing over lost allocation is nothing new.

What is new is that members of the Gulf for-hire fleet, which share the recreational allocation and so would supposedly benefit if the recreational share of landings increased, recently filed a friend of the court brief suppoorting the commercial fleet, and arguing that private boat recreational overages, and the lack of recreational accountability, would end up hurting their businesses more than they might benefit from a bigger recreational quota.

As Capt. Scott Hickman of Galveston, Texas explained,

“We’ve been down this road before.  You set a precedent for taking quota from an accountable sector and dropping it into a black hole,”

such “black hole” being, of course, the private boat recreational fishery, where landings data is uncertain and even regular overages can occur with relative impunity.

When part of the recreational sector chooses to give up some of its potential landings by siding with the commercial fishery, because the rest of the sector is so irresponsible, and so lacking in accountability, that it is might cause real long-term harm to the stock, it’s time to stop and figure out just went wrong—and what needs to be done to set things right.

Holding recreational fishermen accountable for their excesses would be a good place to start.


Sunday, September 25, 2022



A week ago, I wrote about the pending mark-up of H.R. 4690, Rep. Jared Huffman’s Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act.  

The bill represents the first meaningful effort to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in the past 16 years, and would effect some meaningful and needed changes in the primary law governing fisheries management in the federal waters of the United States.  While some critical comments and proposed amendments were expected, the best guess of most of the folks whom I know was that the markup probably wouldn’t take more than about three hours.

That best guess turned out to be fairly bad.  By the time the smoke cleared last Wednesday afternoon, the mark-up was not yet complete—the final vote is scheduled for next Thursday—and the opposition to the bill was far more aggressive than most people had predicted.

The debate over the bill split down the usual partisan divides, with one side of the aisle emphasizing healthy ecosystems and sustainable fish stocks, while the other was more concerned with short-term economic impacts and protecting the immediate interests of various fishing-related industries.  

It was exacerbated by strong industry opposition to H.R. 4690 that was voiced in two letters, one signed by forty commercial fishing organizations of various sizes and geographic scope, the other by four large trade associations, including the National Fisheries Institute, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Retail Federation.

What was interesting about the two sign-on letters isn’t the arguments that they made in opposition to the bill.  Those were the same old songs that we hear sung whenever more restrictive management measures are proposed:  H.R. 4690 would

“throw the U.S. fishing and seafood sector into chaos,”


“be catastrophic for sustainable domestic food production and the millions of Americans who rely on U.S. fisheries for jobs and income, economic security, and affordable protein.”

In addition, if the trade associations are to be believed, H.R. 4690

“would harm American seafood consumers by constraining supply, raising consumer prices, and exacerbating the supply chain uncertainty that continues to undermine the food industry.”

So far, nothing said was particularly noteworthy.  Where things get interesting is when the trade groups begin singling out the portions of H.R. 4690 that they find particularly offensive.

“We are particularly concerned by H.R. 4690’s proposed new requirements relating to forage fish protection, essential fish habitat conservation, and bycatch avoidance.  In each case, the existing responsibility of fishery managers to balance complex competing interests would be curtailed.  Working under rigid new strictures, fishery managers—or judges responding to the claims of plaintiffs—would shut down or severely restrict some of our nation’s largest commercial fisheries to satisfy narrow legislative mandates and for reasons unrelated to marine ecosystem health.  [emphasis added]”

Let that sink in for just a few seconds.  The fishing industry opposes H.R. 4690 because it 1) extends more comprehensive protection to the small forage fish that all of the larger fish, along with birds and marine mammals, feed on, 2) would better conserve essential fish habitat, and 3) seeks to minimize the incidental catch, and associated dead discards, of non-target, non-salable fish and other components of the target species’ ecosystem.  

And then they justify such opposition by arguing that such measures are unrelated to ecosystem health.

It's hardly a persuasive argument.  Even more telling are the comments about “balance[ing] complex competing interests” and “severely restrict[ing] some of our nation’s largest commercial fisheries” for, although it remained unsaid, some of “our nation’s largest commercial fisheries” are also the fisheries that place the greatest pressure on forage fish stocks, do the most damage to essential fish habitat, and cause some of the most serious bycatch issues.

The largest commercial fishery in the country is for walleye pollock, a creature trawled in vast numbers from the cool waters of the northern Pacific Ocean.  You might not recognize the name, but if you’ve eaten a Fillet o’ Fish® sandwich, or some of the processed surimi that is often marketed as “imitation crab legs” in supermarket delis—or passed off as the real thing in cheap buffets—you’re not unfamiliar with the fish itself. 

Over the past five years, annual walleye pollock landings have averaged a little over 3.3 billion pounds per year; even if the ex vessel price was a little under 12 cents per pound in 2021, it remains a very valuable fishery.

It is also a very controversial one, as the walleye pollock fishery generates substantial bycatch, which includes a bycatch of some very valuable, and some very stressed, species.  The industry tries to downplay the amount of incidental catch that is killed, arguing that

“more than 98 percent of the catch in the [Bering Sea Aleutian Islands] Alaska pollock fishery has been pollock.”

But even if bycatch in the fishery is less than 2%, 2% of 3.3 billion pounds is a very big number—66,000,000 pounds, to be more precise—and removing 66 million pounds of various unwanted fish from the marine ecosystem each year can hardly be said to be “unrelated to ecosystem health.”

Representative Mary Peltola (D-AK), who was recently elected to fill the uncompleted term of the late Rep. Don Young, certainly doesn’t believe that such annual removals are harmless.  She is quoted in Alaska Public Media as saying,

“After 30 years of industrial fishing in the Bering Sea, where they are tossing out metric tons of juvenile crab, halibut, and salmon, it catches up with us.  And then we get to the point where people who depend on hundreds of salmon to feed their families every year are not able to even catch single digit numbers of salmon.”

Rep. Peltola is seeking to have two seats on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which governs fishing in federal waters off Alaska, reserved for representatives from the Alaska Native tribes, who are familiar with the subsistence fisheries for salmon and other species that have sustained the tribes for millennia.  As Alaska Public Media reports,

“Without those seats at the table, she argues, the fisheries management council will always be more receptive to the large trawl fleet.  They catch salmon by accident.  Peltola said this bycatch is one reason the fish don’t return to the rivers like they used to.”

It’s a problem that has led to bizarre juxtapositions of who is currently legally allowed to catch the salmon.

For more than a decade, the National Marine Fisheries Service has been conducting genetic surveys of the salmon caught as bycatch in the pollock fishery, to determine which local stocks are being affected.  In 2019, about 40% of the chinook salmon bycatch came from fish returning to coastal western Alaska; fewer than 1% of those fish were from middle and upper Yukon River runs; 23% of the chum salmon bycatch were fish returning to the Eastern Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, while 16% were returning to coastal western Alaska.

The level of bycatch is substantial.  In 2020, the pollock fleet was responsible for an incidental kill of 32,294 chinook salmon, and 320,478 chums.

In 2021, the composition of the fish killed changed.  More than half—52%--were chinook salmon returning to coastal western Alaska.  Breaking that into individual fish, the pollock fleet killed 16,796 salmon that would have otherwise returned to western Alaska rivers; 1,399 of those salmon were on their way to the middle or upper Yukon River.  Each year, the pollock fleet is permitted to kill up to 60,000 chinook salmon as bycatch, with 47,500 incidentally killed salmon deemed the “performance standard.”

And how many chinook salmon were fishermen on the Yukon River, who depend on the fish for personal sustenance and for badly-needed revenues, permitted to harvest in the directed salmon fishery?

None.  None at all.  As one erstwhile salmon gillnetter noted,

“I don’t care what the percentage of bycatch is.  If the number of Yukon salmon is 45,000 salmon caught as bycatch, that was 45,000 more than anyone on the Yukon was allowed to harvest.”

H.R. 4690 would help to correct such inequities, by requiring fishery managers to “minimize” bycatch, a change from current law, which only requires that bycatch be minimized “to the extent practicable.”  The industrial fleet doesn’t want to see the “to the extent practicable” language removed, because it provides a loophole that allows the regional fishery management councils to give an official wink and a nod to bycatch prone fisheries, without actually requiring significant change in how they operate.

Then there are H.R. 4690’s enhanced protections for forage fish, which would amend the definition of “optimum” yield to include the language

“in the case of a forage fish, [optimum yield] is reduced [from maximum sustainable yield]…to provide for the diet needs of fish species and other marine wildlife, including marine mammals and birds, for which forage fish is a significant dietary component.”

The problem is that forage fish tend to support high volume/low value fisheries.  The fishery for menhaden, the second largest commercial fishery in the United States, is a case in point.  Last year, that fishery landed slightly over 1.2 billion pounds of menhaden, that generated ex vessel income of a little more than $266 million—just under 22 cents per pound.  In doing so, it removed a substantial quantity of forage that might otherwise support everything from bluefish to bald eagles to humpback whales.

While the menhaden fishery is deemed to be sustainable, such designation does not consider the possibility of local depletion of the menhaden resource, which some individuals and organizations perceive as an issue.  Nor does it consider the impacts of any such local depletion not only on the regional abundance of predators that depend on the menhaden, but on businesses, particularly fishing and tourism businesses, that depend on the presence of predators to thrive.

Yet the fishing industry rails against forage fish protections.

It also seems to rail against provisions in H.R. 4690 that would bolster procedures intended to promote the conservation of essential fish habitat.  That seems to be a counterproductive position, as the fish on which the fishing industry depends rely, in turn, on spawning, nursery, feeding, and other habitats that support such fish throughout all of the phases of their life.  And the plain fact is that some fishing activities degrade such essential habitat.

Damage isn’t only done by large-scale operations. 

We recently saw the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council entertain a proposal to open a section of the Oculina Bank, a region of unique corals off the East Coast of Florida that provides spawning and nursery habitat for a number of important snapper and grouper species, to rock shrimp trawls, which would have threatened the reef-building corals.  Fortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service quashed the proposal.

It is generally recognized that mobile, bottom-tending gear such as trawls, dredges, and some gill nets can alter, and so degrade, bottom habitats.  Studies have also indicated that, if the use of such devices is prohibited, such bottom habitats may at least partially recover.  Thus, mandated protections for essential fish habitat can, in the long term, benefit both commercial and recreational fisheries.

Yet many in the commercial fishing industry oppose H.R. 4690’s essential fish habitat proposals, making the incredible argument that they are “unrelated to marine ecosystem health.”

In truth, most of the arguments made against H.R. 4690 are at least somewhat incredible.  Others are somewhat reprehensible, trying to camouflage industry efforts to avoid further regulation by taking shelter behind the real problems that face lower-income people and arguing that

“legislators should be keenly aware of the relationship between food supply disruptions and the prices paid by consumers for groceries and restaurant meals.  Food costs in the United States have increased by 11.4 percent in the last year alone, the highest rate of food inflation since 1979.  This inflation is highly regressive, disproportionately harming lower-income families and in some cases limiting the seafood choices that they would otherwise enjoy.”

If they had opted to be forthright, they would have admitted that most wild-caught seafood is already priced too high for the lower-income consumer, and is at best a luxury, special-occasion food.  To put things in perspective, Wal-Mart, hardly a high-end outlet, sells wild Pacific pink salmon at 44.9 cents per ounce ($7.18 per pound), an unknown variety of flounder at $6.98/pound, tuna at $12.88/pound, and Pacific cod at $9.44/pound, compared to whole tilapia at 27.6 cents/ounce ($4.42/pound) and tilapia fillet at $6.98/pound.

If a lower-income individual was looking for affordable protein, wild-caught fish would not be the most price-effective choice.  

H.R. 4690 would have no effect on tilapia farms.

When fishing industry members argue against H.R. 4690’s provisions that would minimize bycatch, extend a little more protection to forage fish, and improve the conservation of essential fish habitat by arguing that such matters are “unrelated to ecosystem health,” the first thing that tells us is that they aren’t very committed to the truth, for each of those issues directly impacts the quality of coastal ecosystems.

When they try to promote their own economic interests by hiding behind the household issues of lower-income people, it tells us that they are willing to compromise principle in order to protect profits.

When they oppose H.R. 4690’s provisions on bycatch, forage fish, and essential fish habitat, it tells us that they would rather degrade the marine environment in the long term, in order to maintain short-term economic benefits, and that they lack the foresight to understand that, by impairing the long-term sustainability of marine ecosystems, they are also willing to put the long-term survival of their own businesses at risk.

But in the end, it also tells us that they are only human, and that is why H.R. 4690 is so badly needed, for it is human nature to focus on the short term, regardless of long-term consequences.

The United States’ fishery management system, based on regional fishery management councils peopled largely by individuals with a vested interest, usually a financial interest, in the fisheries that they manage, shouldn’t work, because people are unlikely to support management measures that reduce current profits.

And, for its first two decades, the federal fishery management system didn’t work, because the regional councils refused to take the necessary steps to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks.  

That’s when Congress stepped in.

It passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which for the first time created clear, legally enforceable standards that compelled the regional fishery management councils to end overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, and base management measures on the best available science.  With that law in place, fish stocks began to recover.

The Sustainable Fisheries Act was good, but it wasn’t good enough.  While it required the regional fishery management councils to take certain actions to end overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks, it still allowed a lot of management discretion.  Neither fishermen nor the regional councils had any accountability when management measures that looked good on paper didn’t prevent annual quotas from being exceeded.  

Thus, in 2006, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, which sought to plug the gaps left by the Sustainable Fisheries Act a decade ago.

Still, there was room for improvement, particularly in the areas of bycatch, forage fish management, and protecting essential fish habitat, areas where the regional fishery management councils generally remained unable or unwilling to take needed action.  So Congress is preparing to intervene once again, place additional sideboards on the regional councils' discretion, and give such councils a push in the direction that they need to go.

That’s what the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act does.

Contrary to industry claims, H.R. 4690 doesn’t curtail the regional fishery management councils’ responsibility for such critical issues.  Instead, it will compel the councils to take responsibility for those important matters, rather than ignoring them and sidestepping the controversy that additional restrictions on bycatch, forage fish fisheries, and impacts on essential fish habitat would inevitably ignite.

And for that reason alone, H.R. 4690 should become law.






Thursday, September 22, 2022



This morning, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee met to discuss the pending stock assessment update, which will be presented to the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board in early November.

Anglers all along the striper coast have been eagerly awaiting the update’s findings, particularly because Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass included the provision

“If the 2002 stock assessment results indicate the Amendment 7 measures have less than a 50% probability of rebuilding the stock by 2029 (as calculated using the low recruitment assumption) and if the stock assessment indicates that at least a 5% reduction in removals is needed to achieve F rebuild, the Board may adjust management measures to achieve F rebuild via Board action (change management measures by voting to pass a motion at a Board meeting).”

Most people familiar with the striped bass resource probably believed that a rebuilding plan would emerge later this year.  I know that I certainly did.  After the Technical Committee met a little over a month ago, it appeared that the most likely outcome would be a fishing mortality reduction in the 25% range.  

However, the final numbers on the stock assessment were yet to be crunched; scientists were still uncertain about a number of points, including how to address retroactive patterns in the data, and whether the regulations that became effective in 2020 impacted the selectivity of fishery-dependent samples.  Depending on how such issues were resolved, the actual reduction needed to rebuild by 2029 seemed likely to fall somewhere between 9 and 27%.

Anyone who listened to the proceedings of the August 2 Management Board meeting, where the various options that might be included in any rebuilding plan were discussed in detail, almost certainly got the impression that most of the Management Board, and certainly most, if not all, of the professional fishery managers, were expecting some sort of rebuilding plan to be needed.

Thus, it certainly came as a surprise to me, and I suspect to many other people as well, when Dr. Katie Drew, until recently the Chair of the Technical Committee, announced that while the striped bass stock is still overfished, overfishing is not occurring, and there is a 78.6% chance that the female spawning stock biomass could be rebuilt to its target level under current regulations.

There will be no fast-tracked rebuilding plan, and there is virtually no chance that the Management Board will decide to adopt a precautionary harvest reduction at this point in time.

While I was caught by surprise, after listening to the Technical Committee meeting, having an opportunity to question the Technical Committee about some of the data, and having thus gained an understanding of the rationales that undelie the Technical Committee’s findings, it’s clear that the rebuilding projection was based on the best scientific information available. 

Some of the facts are a little confusing, so the easiest way to begin is probably by addressing the sources of the initial uncertainty, beginning with selectivity.

It’s a relatively simple concept to explain.  Striped bass stock assessments are based on a wide array of fishery-independent and fishery-dependent surveys.  Fishery-independent surveys are generally surveys conducted by the state, or another fisheries management body.  They may involve trawls, gill nets, or other gear, and they may seek to survey fish at any stage of their lives, from young-of-the year to the oldest and largest spawning females.  Such surveys are designed, to the extent possible, to provide objective, statistically-valid samples of the striped bass resource.

Fishery-independent surveys are a little different, as they survey fish that have been captured by commercial and recreational fishermen.  Thus, such surveys always have some sort of inherent bias, because fishermen’s landings are often disproportionately composed of a few ages and sizes of fish, because such fish are particularly vulnerable to the gear used (e.g., gill nets with a particular mesh size) and/or because regulations place restrictions on the size of the fish that may be retained.

Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan abandoned the previous 28-inch minimum size for coastal recreational anglers with a 28- to 35-inch slot limit, beginning with the 2020 fishing season.  It also resulted in changes to the regulations affecting anglers in the Chesapeake Bay, and led to some states changing the size limits in their commercial fisheries.  Such altered selectivity would be reflected in fishery-dependent surveys.  Some year classes of fish might appear more abundant than they actually were, simply because new regulations made them more likely to be retained; at the same time, other year classes, which the new rules required fishermen to release, might be underrepresented in the new surveys, compared to their true abundance in the sea.

Thus, the Technical Committee decided to adopt new selectivity curves for the years 2020 and 2021, for both the ocean and for the Chesapeake Bay. 

Had the Technical Committee not adopted the new selectivity curves, and instead based its 2020 and 2021 calculations on the same selectivity assumed for the period 1996-2019, an action that no one on the Technical Committee supported, the outcome would have been very different.  

Under such selectivity assumption, current regulations would only have had a 20% chance of achieving the spawning stock biomass target by the 2029 deadline; an 8.6% fishing mortality reduction would have been needed to achieve a mere 50% probability of rebuilding success.

While such reduction might appeal to those seeking more conservative striped bass management, it would ignore the effects of Addendum VI, and thus not be based on the best science.  The decision not to make a retrospective adjustment also appears to have been the right one.

To understand the retrospective adjustment issue, one must first understand that estimates of spawning stock biomass and fishing mortality are just that—estimates.  They are based on the best available data.  In the case of striped bass, such data is abundant, but they nonetheless always include some level of uncertainty.  More data makes for better estimates, so the estimates for the terminal year of any stock assessment always incorporate the greatest amount of uncertainty; as additional years of data are added, each year’s estimate grows more precise. 

Even so, every “point estimate” contained in a stock assessment includes a “confidence interval” (CI) that reflects the acknowledged uncertainty.  Thus, in the last striped bass benchmark assessment, we see the statement

“Female [spawning stock biomass]…was estimated at 68.5 metric tons (95% CI 53,520-83,431 mt),”

which tells us that the point estimate used to determine the status of the stock was 68.5 metric tons wasn’t the precise measure of the SSB; instead, there was a 95% probability (“95% CI”) that the SSB fell somewhere between 53,250 and 83,431 metric tons.

When the stock assessment update added four additional years of data to the data used in the benchmark assessment, it revealed that the spawning stock biomass in 2017, the terminal year of the benchmark assessment, was actually somewhat less than the benchmark assessment revealed, and that the fishing mortality rate was higher.

The stock assessment update estimated spawning stock biomass at the end of 2021 to have been 64,805 metric tons, and fishing mortality at the time to have been 0.14; the former is well below the biomass threshold, although showing an increasing trend, while the latter is below the biomass target. 

Based on those numbers (and the new selectivity curves), current regulations will rebuild the stock by 2029.

But those terminal year estimates are subject to some level of uncertainty, and the model used to assess the striped bass stock has a retrospective pattern of overestimating the size of the spawning stock biomass, while underestimating fishing mortality.  If a retrospective adjustment was made, the spawning stock biomass value would have been less than 64.8 million metric tons, and the fishing mortality rate would have exceeded 0.14.  Based on such adjusted figures, a rebuilding plan, and fishing mortality reductions, would have been needed to fully rebuild the stock by 2029.

So why are we likely to see regulations remain unchanged?

Again, uncertainty and the confidence interval come into play.

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center has advised that a retrospective adjustment shouldn’t be made if the adjusted value would fall within a 90% confidence interval from the point estimate (although it might, at first, seem counterintuitive, a 90% confidence interval includes a narrower range of values than a 95% CI, so is a fairly restrictive standard).  The retrospective adjustment to the assessment update’s estimates would have fallen well within the 90% CI for such estimates.

Thus, in conformity with accepted fisheries management standards, no retrospective adjustment was made, and no rebuilding plan is required.

The third contributor to the conclusion that no mortality reduction is needed is also based on retrospective patterns.

The spawning stock biomass threshold is equal to the estimated female spawning stock biomass in 1995; the SSB target is 125% of the threshold; the 1995 estimate is not a fixed value but, like all other estimates of SSB, varies as new data is developed.  

Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Striped Bass, adopted in 2003, set the value at 14,000 metric tons.  Additional data caused that estimate to be revised sharply upward, to 36,881 metric tons, by the time that a stock assessment update was released in 2011.  The SSB threshold was revised upward again, to 57,904 metric tons in the 2013 benchmark stock assessment; five years later, the 2018 benchmark assessment nearly doubled the SSB threshold to 202 million pounds, or about 91,625 metric tons.

The 2022 stock assessment update has finally reversed the two decade long history of increasing SSB thresholds; when data for the years 2018-2021 were added to the model, the SSB threshold dropped slightly, to 85,457, making the tasks of ending overfishing and rebuilding the stock just a little easier to achieve.  (It should be noted that the 2022 stock assessment update slightly reduced the fishing mortality refence points as well; the fishing mortality threshold dropped from 0.22 to 0.20, while the target fell from 0.18 to 0.17.)

Still, the fact that the Technical Committee determined that the current striped bass regulations have a 78.6% probability of rebuilding the stock by 2029 doesn’t mean that successful rebuilding is a foregone conclusion. 

For a start, the 78.6% probability of achieving that goal is based on maintaining the current fishing mortality rate of 0.14.  While that could occur, an influx of fish from the 2015 year class into the 28- to 35-inch slot might well cause coastal recreational harvest to spike.  An abundance of fish from the large 2011, 2014, and 2015 year classes could also attract more anglers into the fishery, and push fishing mortality higher.

In addition, the proposed Draft Addendum 1 to Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, if approved, would allow coastal states to transfer uncaught quota to states elsewhere on the coast that were likely to exceed their annual allocations.  Such transfers would have the effect of increasing overall commercial landings, and so overall fishing mortality.

Estimates of spawning stock biomass might be far too high high, and estimates of fishing mortality might be far too low.  The stock may just not respond to management in the way the people expect.

That’s why Maryland biologist Alexi Sharov warned that the stock assessment update should not strike too optimistic a tone; there are always far too many uncertainties in any rebuilding effort to guarantee success, even if managers do their best to make such rebuilding happen.

So what are we to make of the stock assessment update’s advice, assuming such advice remains substantially unchanged from this morning’s meeting?

We should recognize that we have a good chance of rebuilding the stock, but we shouldn’t be too surprised if completing the rebuilding process takes more than seven years.  Although the decision not to make a retrospective adjustment conforms to accepted scientific norms, it still could have the real-world effect of making rebuilding a little more difficult.  

I suspect that quite a few striped bass anglers, who have dedicated substantial time and effort in calling for more conservative management, will not be pleased with the Technical Committee's advice.  I suspect that they will argue that the assessment update's findings do not coincide with what they’re seeing on the water.  I know that may of them believe that the stock is in serious trouble, that is is still declining, and that a collapse is already in view.

Such folks ought to take a deep breath, and take some time to really think about what is happening now.

Throughout the striped bass management process, and the process of managing other species as well, we’ve complained about people who deny the science, and argue that the datga is wrong, because the biologists don’t know what’s happening out on the water, that the scientists are underestimating the size of fish population, that managers are looking for fish in the wrong places, etc.

We’ve repeatedly argued that management measures shouldn’t be based on anecdotal information, or people’s beliefs, but on the best scientific information available, applied by competent and disinterested biologists who are just trying to get fisheries management right.

The stock assessment update is giving us just what we have long asked for.

And if we hoot and holler and complain that it overestimated the size of the SSB, or underestimated the fishing mortality, or that the bass are going to disappear because the scientists didn’t consider the lack of fish off some of our favorite beaches or in some of our favorite rips, we become nothing more than a mirror image of the people we’ve always complained about, who challenge the science not with fact, but with mere anecdote and opinion.  

The only difference would be that the other guys claim that there are more fish in the ocean than the assessments reveal, while we would be claiming that there are less.

The technical folks deserve more respect than that.  And we know better than to make bogus claims.

Thus, I’ll close with something that I wrote just one month ago.

“The Technical Committee is composed of capable and experienced fishery scientists, who have always demonstrated both competence and integrity, along with a desire to produce the best scientific advice possible.  I have confidence that their final recommendation will, in their professional judgment, reflect the current state of the striped bass stock and provide good advice on how to move forward.”

I stand by that statement today.

Sunday, September 18, 2022



Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA), Chair of the House Natural Resources Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee, has long been interested in reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and updating that law to reflect current and future challenges confronting federal fishery managers.

He began, in 2019, by traveling across the nation and visiting every coast, where he held “listening sessions” in an effort to figure out what Magnuson-Stevens got right, and also to figure out where there were gaps in the law that needed fixing in order to improve the federal fishery management system. 

After hearing stakeholder concerns, Rep. Huffman distilled them into what became the discussion draft of a possible reauthorization bill, which was then circulated among stakeholders to gain further input on the issues addressed therein.

Finally, in July 2021, Rep. Huffman and Representative Ed Case (D-HI) introduced H.R. 4690, the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act, which was intended to help fisheries adapt to climate change, provide additional support for fishing communities, improve the federal fishery management process, improve the data used by fishery managers, and provide additional protections for marine ecosystems.

When he introduced such legislation, Rep. Huffman noted that

“Americans coast-to-coast depend on healthy oceans and fisheries, whether it’s the seafood we eat, time spent on the water as recreational anglers, or the economic engine supporting working waterfronts and coastal communities.  We know that the MSA has worked well, but new approaches are needed in the era of climate change, new technologies, evolving science needs, and increasing ocean use.  Through our stakeholder-driven, science-based approach, we have crafted legislation that rises to the challenges of the 21st Century and includes critical updates to this landmark law.  With the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act we can strengthen fishing communities and ensure a high standard of sustainable fisheries continues well into the future…”

His legislation takes on the challenges of warming oceans and shifting fish stocks, something that the regional fishery management councils have not yet been willing to do.  Such shifting stocks have had a particular impact on commercial and recreational fishermen in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, causing Rep. Huffman to note

“We heard concerns about climate change everywhere.  But the concerns are different depending on where you are.  So in the North Atlantic, it’s ground zero for shifting stocks…”

Should H.R. 4690 become law in its current form, it would require fishery managers to consider climate-related spatial shifts in stock abundance, and create a mechanism for regional fishery management councils to address stocks that shift into waters under another council’s jurisdiction. 

The current version of H.R. 4690 also addresses thorny issues of fisheries science.  It both encourages and establishes standards for the use of electronic technologies for fisheries management, and also creates a formal framework for planning and conducting stock assessments.  Perhaps more importantly, it requires that, if recreational fishery data is generated by more than one source,

“the Secretary shall implement measures, which may include the use of calibration methods, as needed for the timely integration of such data to assure consistent methods and approaches are used for monitoring of catch against the relevant annual catch limits and for other fisheries science and management purposes.”

Such language, if codified in Magnuson-Stevens, should effectively put an end to the sort of gamesmanship that we’ve seen in the recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, where various organizations associated with the “anglers’ rights” community and the recreational fishing industry have been taking advantage of the differences between the data produced by state and federal fishery managers to perpetuate recreational overharvest in both Alabama and Mississippi.

H.R. 4690 looked like it had a good chance to win passage in the House, until Rep. Don Young (R-AK) died on March 18, 2022.

Rep. Young was the longest-serving Republican representative in the history of the House.  At the time of his death, he had been in office for 49 years; in 2017 he became the longest-sitting representative from either party then serving in the House of Representatives. 

Before being elected to the House, Rep. Young had, for a while, worked as a commercial fisherman, and he was always among the most influential representatives with respect to fisheries policy.  He was co-author of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act—which ultimately became Magnuson-Stevens—in 1976, and was always involved with any major piece of fisheries legislation that might impact his constituents.

Fishing is an extremely important part of Alaska’s economy, and Rep. Young’s service earned him the respect of other members of the House.  Thus, upon his death, Rep. Huffman announced that he would place all action on H.R. 4690 on hold until a special election was held and a new representative from Alaska was seated.  Such election has now occurred and, last Tuesday, Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK) was sworn in to complete Rep. Young’s unfinished term.

From the perspective of fisheries conservation and management, it’s hard to imagine a better choice than Rep. Peltola.  An Alaskan Native belonging to the Yup’ik people, Rep. Peltola is no stranger to fishery issues.  She is a former director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, where she delved into issues related to declining crab and salmon stocks; her campaign for Rep. Young’s former seat was built around “fish, family, and freedom.” 

Rep. Peltola has been named to the House Natural Resources Committee, where she will speak to Alaskans’ concerns with respect to how natural resources—including fisheries—are managed by the federal government.  Now that she's seated, Rep. Huffman has decided to move forward with H.R 4690.  His office has released a statement confirming that

“the panel has now scheduled a markup for next Wednesday.

“Peltola addressed the issue in a brief interview as she boarded a train in the basement of the Capitol.

“Asked what her priorities would be as a new member of the Natural Resources Committee, she said: ‘Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, for starters.’

“When asked whether that could be done quickly, she replied: ‘Fingers crossed.’”

Because yes, Rep. Huffman’s reauthorization bill still faces an uncertain future.  With only a few days left before representatives go back to their districts to campaign for the mid-term election, an election where newly-minted Representative Peltola with be forced to again fight for her newly-won seat, passage of the bill will almost certainly have to wait for the lame duck session.  Just getting the bill marked up ahead of the pre-election recess represents remarkable progress.

If the bill does pass in the lame duck session, there is no guarantee that it will find enough support in the Senate, where 10 of 50 often conservation-hostile Republicans will have to back it if the bill is to become law.

Still, H.R. 4690 is in a far better place today than it was a week ago.

Will it be able to pass?

As Rep. Peltola already said, “Fingers crossed.”




Thursday, September 15, 2022



It’s that time of year again.

After months scouring the rips for striped bass, or taking clients offshore in search of dolphin or school bluefin tuna, light-tackle guides and private anglers are swarming inshore waters between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras, seeking to find false albacore, a fish better known to biologists as Euthynnus alleteratus, or “little tunny.”

The fishing can get intense, as boats engage in “run and gun” tactics to pursue schools of fish that burst to the surface chasing bait, then quickly disappear.  Off popular ports, particularly on weekends, conditions can devolve to what some have called “combat fishing,” when boats cluster so close together in pursuit of fish that flyfishermen’s backcasts have been known to plink off the T-tops of nearby vessels.

Similar scenes unfold on shorelines and jetties, as casters crowd together for shots at breaking fish, often casting over one another’s lines, and crossing the lines of hooked-up anglers, in their rush to draw a strike before the feeding albacore disappear.

Personally, I’ve never understood the hysteria.

False albacore belong to the family Scombridae, which includes the tunas and mackerels, a fact that is readily apparent from one glance at their fusiform bodies.  They are fast fish that fight hard, and so they’re fun to catch, and the fact that they often show on the surface, where they strike lures and, more important to many anglers, also hit flies, only adds to their appeal.

Still, if you’ve caught one false albacore, you’ve pretty much caught them all, as there isn’t much variation in the way individual fish fight.  And most people don’t care for the way that they taste although, if properly handled, they can make some decent sashimi.

But mine is clearly the minority view.  For many anglers, and particularly those in the light-tackle community, the fall false albacore run is one of the highlights of the season.  There is no question that it is a keystone to the survival of the light tackle saltwater guide, who knows that even when striped bass and bluefish populations are in serious decline, they can usually count on false albacore to keep their clients excited and booking trips through most of the fall.

Yet, as important as the false albacore fishery is to a sizeable segment of the recreational fishing community, it is completely unregulated.  Outside of some inconsequential regulations in Florida that lump the fish in with othergenerally unmanaged species, and limit landings to the greater of two fish or100 pounds, neither federal nor state managers pay any attention to the species. 

Yet false albacore not only support a substantial recreational fishery, but a not-insignificant commercial fishery as well.  So it’s reasonable to ask whether the false albacore population in the northwest Atlantic requires conservation and management.

That’s a key question, because the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, provides that

“Each [regional fishery management] Council shall, in accordance with the provisions of this Act, for each fishery under its authority that requires conservation and management, prepare and submit to the Secretary a fishery management plan…  [emphasis added; internal formatting omitted]”

Thus, a regional fishery management council has no obligation to develop a management plan for every species of fish that swims through waters under its jurisdiction; however, it must develop such plan for each fishery that requires conservation and management.

And when is conservation and management required?

Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t answer that question directly, although it does define “conservation and management” as

“all of the rules, regulations, conditions, methods, and other measures which are required to rebuild, restore, and maintain, and which are useful in rebuilding, restoring, and maintaining, any fishery resource and the marine environment; and which are designed to assure that a supply of food and other products may be taken, and that recreational benefits may be obtained, on a continuing basis; irreversible or long-term adverse effects on fishery resources and the marine environment are avoided; and there will be a multiplicity of options available with respect to future uses of these resources.  [internal formatting omitted]”

However, the National Marine Fisheries Service has published guidelines to assist in determining whether conservation and management are needed.  Such guidelines read, in part,

“…Not every fishery requires Federal management.  Any stocks that are predominantly caught in Federal waters and are overfished or subject to overfishing, or likely to become overfished or subject to overfishing, are considered to require conservation and management.  Beyond such stocks, Councils may determine that additional stocks may require ‘conservation and management…’  [A] Council should consider the following non-exhaustive list of factors when deciding whether additional stocks require conservation and management:

(i)                The stock is an important component of the marine environment.

(ii)              The stock is caught by the fishery.

(iii)            Whether [a fishery management plan] can improve or maintain the condition of the stock.

(iv)            The stock is a target of a fishery.

(v)              The stock is important to commercial, recreational, or subsistence users.

(vi)            The fishery is important to the Nation or to the regional economy.

(vii)           The need to resolve competing interests and conflicts among user groups and whether [a fishery management plan] can further that resolution.

(viii)          The economic condition of a fishery and whether [a fishery management plan] can produce more efficient utilization.

(ix)             The needs of a developing fishery and whether [a fishery management plan] can foster orderly growth.

(x)              The extent to which the fishery is already adequately managed by the states, by state/Federal programs, or by Federal regulations pursuant to other [fishery management plans] or international commissions, or by industry self-regulation, consistent with the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and other applicable law.”

So, given those guidelines, do false albacore require conservation and management?

For many years, I would have said no.

For a very long time, false albacore were seldom retained by recreational fishermen, and there was no significant commercial fishery.  When people raised the subject in the late 1990s, I was quick to predict that no regional fishery management council would be interested in developing a little tunny management plan.

And for a very long time, events supported that view. 

Sometime around 2002, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council considered adding little tunny and Atlantic bonito to its CoastalMigratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plan, but dropped any management efforts after Magnuson-Stevens was reauthorized in 2006. 

When the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council wasdeveloping its Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment in 2016, it considered adding little tunny as one of the protected forage species.  However, it had a problem doing so, as the forage fish protections were adopted as an amendment to existing Mid-Atlantic management plans, and although false albacore or avidly fed upon by fish such as blue marlin and shortfin mako sharks, they are not eaten by Mid-Atlantic Council-managed species such as tilefish, squid, or summer flounder.  Thus, the Unmanaged Forage amendment was not an appropriate vehicle.

In addition, as Capt. John McMurray, then a Council member (and still a light-tackle guide that depends on false albacore for part of his business) regretfully admitted,

“Even if the council were to put albies back on the unmanaged forage fish list, NMFS probably wouldn’t allow it.  The alternative is a fishery management plan, and that would be a disaster.  You’d have a bunch of eggheads in a room, and they’re gonna look at this massive biomass of fish that nobody’s really targeting, and say you could take a gazillion pounds out of it and it will still be fine; and they’d be right from a yield perspective.  But it wouldn’t be fine for anglers and guides.  The unmanaged forage fish amendment was the perfect vehicle to manage something before it needs to be rebuilt.”

But there are some indications that the false albacore situation may be changing.

Recreational harvest over the past decade averaged about 3.45 million pounds; landings peaked at about 5.5 million in 2015, and then began to decline.  In 2021, 2.4 million pounds of little tunny were harvested by anglers.  Recent recreational landings are significantly higher than they were at the beginning of the century; from 2001 through 2010, recreational landings averaged just 2.0 million pounds, with most years’ harvest falling somewhat below the 2 million pound mark.  Thus, it appears that recreational pressure on false albacore has increased substantially in the past 20 years.

The commercial fishery, although somewhat smaller, is also showing an similar landings pattern.  Reported 2021 landings were 435,132 pounds, somewhat below the last decade’s average annual landings of 509,780 pounds.  Commercial landings peaked, at 613,112 pounds, in 2014, a year before recreational landings reached their apex.  And, as in the case with recreational landings, commercial landings for the first ten years of this century were lower than they are today, averaging 391,550 pounds, suggesting that the commercial fishery has also been expanding.

The published commercial fishery landings probably don’t tell the whole story, because some commercial landings data is deemed to be confidential, due to the small number of fishermen landing false albacore in a one or more states.  There are also anecdotal reports which suggest that a thriving under-the-counter bait fishery exists, particularly in Florida, which sees local shops buying significant quantities of false albacore directly from fishermen, who never report such landings to fishery managers.

The seemingly increasing pressure on the false albacore resource is beginning to cause some concern in the recreational community, among anglers who fear that fishery managers’ failure to consider conservation measures may be doing real harm to the population. 

Foremost among those concerned about the health of the population is the American Saltwater Guides Association, which has a membership that is deeply invested in, and dependent upon, a healthy false albacore fishery.  After hearing from members concerned about possible unfavorable trends in the false albacore population, ASGA researched the issue, and has decided to become the little tunny’s champion.

It began, as all conservation and management efforts should begin, with the science.  Because very little information on false albacore exists, ASGA partnered with the New England Aquarium, along with some generous sponsors, to place 50 acoustic tags in such fish caught in Nantucket Sound.  Various teams of scientists, working on projects completely unrelated to little tunny, have installed arrays of acoustic sensors all along the Atlantic coast of the United States.  When one of the tagged albacore passes near a sensor array, its tag will “ping” the sensors with a unique code, and allow researchers to determine where an when the fish is traveling.

Hopefully, information gleaned from the acoustic tagging process will permit scientists to fill in some blanks in the little tunny’s life history, including migration patterns, local stock structure, and how well the fish survive catch and release (because if few or no fish are picked up by the sensors, there’s a good chance that most die soon after release).

The biggest problem with that research effort is that acoustic tags are expensive, and that tagging 50 fish off Massachusetts is unlikely to unlock all of the data needed to properly evaluate and manage the population.  Thus, ASGA has also teamed up with NMFS’ Southeast Fisheries Science Center in a higher-volume and more wide-ranging effort to plant inexpensive nylon “anchor” tags in fish caught all along the East Coast.  Those tags, which are composed of the dart-like nylon anchor and a highly visible plastic streamer, are being deployed by some of ASGA’s member guides, who operate in waters between Massachusetts and Florida.  Such guides were selected based on both their experience with tagging programs and their geographic location, to best assure that false albacore caught along the entire coast will be part of the study.

Yet, even if the tagging studies begin bearing fruit quickly, it will take appreciable time for the data to be compiled and analyzed, and the results of the studies published.  Thus, ASGA has also petitioned the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to again consider including little tunny in its Coastal Migratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plan.

ASGA is convinced that, based on NMFS published guidelines, little tunny very much require conservation and management, and that conservation and management measures should be implemented on a precautionary basis, before existing fisheries expand or a new fishery can take root and grow, and the lack of a management plan does real harm to the stock.

As the ASGA website relates,

“Light tackle and fly anglers up and down the Atlantic coast pursue false albacore during all parts of the season.  It is estimated that over half a million trips per year are taken with false albacore being the primary target.  In regions like North Carolina and Massachusetts,  these targeted trips generate a robust economy for surrounding coastal communities.  These fish are valued by anglers as well as business owners due to their inshore availability as well as their hard-fighting nature…

“Our guides and fishing-related businesses on the Atlantic coast can’t afford to lose another species.  ASGA believes that false albacore need to be managed under [a fishery management plan] according to the [Magnuson-Stevens Act] National Standard Guidelines laid out by NOAA Fisheries.  For us, albies meet these criteria:

·        The stock is an important component of the marine environment.

·        The stock is targeted and caught by fisheries.

·        [A fishery management plan] could improve or maintain the condition and scientific understanding of the stock.

·        The stock is important to recreational and commercial users and regional economies.

·        Developing fisheries may emerge, and [a fishery management plan], with precautionary management strategies, should be in place to oversee it.

·        There is no formal management or regulation for false albacore by federal or state entities.

Our position is simply that the stock is important and valued and therefore needs to be managed…”

So do little tunny off the United States’ Atlantic Coast require conservation and management?

The American Saltwater Guides Association seems to make a good argument that they do, based on NMFS’ own published guidelines.  

Recreational and commercial landings data, which suggest increasing landings throughout most of the past 20 years, but also show such landings peaking in 2014/2015 before entering a mild decline, might also militate in favor of precautionary management measures, as do anecdotal reports from light tackle guides on the Florida coast, who report that false albacore—they call them “bonito,”—are neither as abundant nor as large as they were just a few years ago, and attribute a rapidly-expanding commercial bait fishery for the change.

ASGA’s petition to include little tunny in the Coastal Migratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plan was signed by many anglers, guides, and fishing tackle manufacturers and dealers; ASGA hopes that it will be discussed at the next meeting of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.  

In such petition, ASGA is not seeking any particular management measures; until more data is developed, it is impossible to know what sort of management measures might be needed.  Instead, it is seeking a precautionary management program, in which the South Atlantic Council develops the information needed to manage the species, and prevents any rapidly expanding fishery from threatening the stock before such information becomes available.

While the American Saltwater Guides Association, along with quite a few other members of the recreational community, believe that false albacore require conservation and management, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council still needs to decide the issue, a decision that it could make when it next meets, although the smart money is on the process to take a bit—maybe quite a bit—longer.

In the meantime, it’s hard to argue against a precautionary stance.  Given their importance to the light tackle fishing industry, and the public’s general disregard for their value as food, false albacore are worth quite a bit more alive than they are dead.  Keeping them alive ought to be managers’ first concern.