Sunday, February 26, 2023



Preliminary Marine Recreational Information Program data for all of the 2022 season has recently been released.  It contains some bad news for striped bass.  Last year’s recreational harvest was about double the harvest in 2021.

Anglers landed an estimated 3,521,065 striped bass in 2022,  91% more than the 1,841,901 bass landed in the previous season.  Live releases were just about the same for the two years, with an estimated 29,458,293 bass released last season, versus 28,687,920 returned to the water in 2021.  If the accepted 9% release mortality rate is applied to those figures, we end up with a total of 6,172,311 striped bass killed by the recreational fishery in 2022, as compared to 4,423,813 in 2021.  

When harvest is measured in pounds, rather than in individual fish, the increase in 2022 landings is even more striking.  Last year, anglers landed 35,271,130 pounds of bass, an amount 123% above the 15,781,509 pounds landed in 2021.  Release mortality is not calculated in pounds, but only in fish, and so is not included in the foregoing figures.  (For those who might be wondering, no one believes that fishery managers can actually count every last bass caught, released, or harvested by recreational fishermen.  The figures provided are merely point estimates embedded in a range of values, defined by the “percent standard error” or “PSE.”  Actual catch, etc. is expected to fall somewhere within that range.  The PSEs for all estimates provided herein fall somewhere between 7.8 and 9.3, which indicates a relatively high level of precision.)

By comparison, commercial landings for 2021 were 577,363 fish, weighing approximately 4,290,000 pounds.  Commercial landings for 2022 have not yet been released, but given that the entire commercial quota, including both the Chesapeake Bay and ocean fisheries, is 5,412,802 pounds, there is a hard cap on how high such landings might go.  There is no cap on the recreational fishery.

With such a startling increase in recreational landings, the next question must be whether such increase will impact the recovery of the overfished striped bass stock.

The answer, as unsatisfactory as it might be, is that it is still too early to know.

Last fall, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission released an update to the striped bass stock assessment, which found that, in 2021, the fishing mortality rate was 0.14, somewhat below the fishing mortality target rate of 0.17.  The same update predicted that, if the fishing mortality rate remained at 0.14, there was a 78.6% probability that the spawning stock biomass would be fully rebuilt by the 2029 rebuilding deadline.  If the fishing mortality rate increased to the 0.17 target, the probability of rebuilding fell to 52.0%; if the rate increased even more, to equal or exceed the fishing mortality threshold rate of 0.20, it is unlikely that the stock would attain the spawning stock biomass target.

We’re now looking at a situation in which landings have roughly doubled—a little less than doubled, if measured in fish, and significantly more than doubled, if measured in pounds—but it’s important to realize that such increase does not equate to a doubling of the fishing mortality rate.  Despite the sharp increase in landings, it is possible—although probably not likely—that the fishing mortality rate has hardly increased at all.

That’s because fishing mortality is calculated as an annual rate of removals, and not merely as the absolute number of fish taken out of the population.  To calculate such rate, one must know not only how many fish were removed from the population, but how big the population was in the first place.

Even those two values don’t provide all of the information that’s needed, because different segments of the striped bass population experience different levels of fishing mortality.  Striped bass less than 18 inches long are universally safe from legal harvest, so the only fishing mortality that they experience comes from illegal landings and release mortality.  On the other hand, bass between 28 and 35 inches long may be harvested just about everywhere, although there are a few exceptions and, in some places, closed seasons apply.

To capture such differences, biologists employ the concept of “fully-recruited fishing mortality” which, if put in its simplest terms, is roughly equivalent to the fishing mortality experienced by that segment of the population that people are actually fishing for (my apologies to any biologists who might be reading this, for such a casual definition).  Fully-recruited fishing mortality can be calculated in more than one way, depending upon whether the person doing the analysis chooses to assume constant mortality across all the relevant age classes, or elects to break things down to the year-class level, but that’s more detail than we need to consider here.

The concept of fully-recruited fishing mortality, which is used when calculating striped bass removal rates, explains why the 2021 and 2022 landings are not directly comparable—the population of fish deemed to be “fully recruited” changes from year to year.

The 2015 year class of striped bass represents the strongest year class produced in the past decade.  While some of the 2015s grew faster than others, and entered the coastal slot limit prior to 2022, the majority of the 2015 year class could not be legally harvested in most places until last season.  Thus, while landings increased in 2022, the influx of 2015s into the fishery caused the population of bass used to calculate the fishing mortality rate to increase as well.  

At the same time, fish from the 2011 year class, which was also large, were growing out of the top end of the slot, and so were no longer a part of the generally fishable population.

Thus, until the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee takes all of the factors into consideration and calculates the 2022 fishing mortality rate, we won’t know for certain how last year's landings will impact rebuilding.

At the same time, we can make a few informed guesses.

It seems pretty likely that fishing mortality was higher in 2022 than it was in 2021; it’s probably safe to predict that both the 0.14 fishing mortality rate, and the 78.6% chance of rebuilding the stock by 2029, now belong to the past.

Beyond that, preditions get harder to make.  While I think that the fishing mortality rate increased in 2022, it’s hard to guess where it might have ended up.  My gut tells me that there’s a good chance—probably a better than even chance—that fishing mortality exceeded the target.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the striped bass was again experiencing overfishing, but at the same time, I also wouldn’t be surprised if the fishing mortality rate remained below the threshold.

Without technical guidance, it’s impossible to know for sure.

The other thing that we can’t yet know is how the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board is going to respond to the increased recreational landings.

The increase certainly won’t catch the Management Board by surprise.  At its November 2022 meeting, Dr. Michael Armstrong, Massachusetts’ fishery manager, raised the issue on multiple occasions, noting at one point that

“I looked at the MRIP landings, and they are up considerably this year.  There is only one way we can react as a Board to low recruitment, and that’s maintaining an increasing [spawning stock biomass].  If in fact the retrospective is right and we’re a little bit higher and some of the other uncertainty and landings are up.  We may in fact be at the threshold already, after this year…

“But the main reason we are in this situation is we have never hit our target [fishing mortality rate], at least for a prolonged period of time.  To prevent that we need to know what [the fishing mortality rate] is.  I would advocate for something, either an update, or what Katie [Drew, of the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee] was talking about, to kind of give us an idea within one year of where we’re at.  That’s because mostly of the recruitment.  We need to get [spawning stock biomass] up, which may not work, but that’s all we can do.”

After some discussion, the Management Board and ASMFC staff came to a general agreement that the Technical Committee would compare the projected 2022 catch level needed to maintain the 0.14 fishing mortality rate with the actual 2022 landings.  If the actual landings were significantly above the projections, the Board might either take some sort of management action, or wait until the next stock assessment update was released late in 2024.

Dr. Armstrong wasn’t altogether pleased with the latter alternative, saying

“I don’t know quite how to react to that, other than you know we’re not locked in…if we find that landings are high, and projected to go above [the fishing mortality rate], we could always cut harvest without a quantitative assessment.  I could sit here and make a motion and say, let’s cut harvest by 10 percent.

“I don’t know what it will do.  It may cause people to go crazy.  But I just think we’re in a spot that we need to react.  That being said, stocks don’t collapse overnight.  But with 4 years of poor recruitment, we’re approaching that point, in my mind…”

So the stage is set for the Management Board to act when it meets in May.

At that point, the Technical Committee will be able to provide it with a comparison of 2022 landings to the landings projections contained in the last stock assessment update.  If the landings are well above the projection, I strongly suspect that someone, very possibly Dr. Armstrong, will move to place additional harvest restrictions in place.  I also suspect that some Management Board members will be very opposed to such motion.

At that point, the Management Board will have a choice.  It could decide to take preemptive action, in the absence of a formal stock assessment update, to keep the striped bass stock on a path to timely rebuilding.  Or it could decide to sit on its hands and do nothing, and instead wait for the next stock assessment update to be released late in 2024 which, unless managers vote to fast-track the process, would probably result in no management changes becoming effective before the 2026 season.

If excessive fishing mortality continued through 2025, the 2029 rebuilding deadline would probably be completely out of reach.

If low recruitment accompanies such high fishing mortality, the striped bass might stand on--or even beyond--the the brink of the stock collapse that Dr. Armstrong hopes to avoid.

The Management Board's May meeting could well turn out to be one of those critical times, when the health of the striped bass stock hinges on a single vote.

We can only hope that any such vote goes the right way.




Thursday, February 23, 2023



With all things considered, Atlantic menhaden management can only be called a conservation success.

The fight was long—I got involved in the late 1990s, and there were other folks advocating for the menhaden well before then—but when you think about where we were 35 years ago, compared to where we are today, the progress becomes very clear.

After all, back in the late 1990s, menhaden were effectively owned by the purse seine reduction fleet.  The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s original Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden, adopted in 1981, created an Atlantic Menhaden Management Board that was

“composed of the six chief fishery management administrators of states actively participating in the management program, six menhaden industry executives who request membership, and an ex officio representative from [the National Marine Fisheries Service]…”

charged with making the final management decisions, an “Atlantic Menhaden Implementation Subcommittee”

“composed of 3 industry and 3 state administrator members of the [Atlantic Menhaden Management Board]…to conduct the day to day activities of the overall management program…”

and an “Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee”

“composed of fishery biologists designated as representatives by the States actively participating in the management program, industry representatives designated by the companies in the purse seine fishery, and a NMFS biologist from the menhaden program who is actively engaged in the research and data base management…[The Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee] shall formulate recommendations for short term management actions over the next one or two fishing seasons, propose new research…and request special analyses of Atlantic menhaden data by NMFS-[Southeast Fisheries Center] scientific staff…”

 The plan’s stated long-term objective was to

“Achieve the greatest continuing yield for each area by determining the age at which menhaden should be harvested and eliminating other restrictions which do not contribute to the management goal.”

Following many years of work by the conservation and recreational fishing communities, which had combined their efforts to achieve a common goal, the ASMFC adopted Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden in July 2001.

Amendment 1 revamped the entire management structure, eliminating the seats reserved for industry members and creating an Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, Atlantic Menhaden Technical Committee, and Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Panel that were structured in the same manner as bodies focused on all of the other ASMFC-managed species.  

In addition, the management plan’s goal was changed from merely maximizing harvest, and eliminating any obstacles thereto.  It now reads

“To manage the Atlantic menhaden fishery in a manner that is biologically, economically, socially and ecologically sound, while protecting the resource and those who benefit from it.”

A comprehensive set of biological, social/economic, ecological, and management objectives were adopted at the same time.

If Amendment 1 represented the current pinnacle of menhaden management, it would have placed the fish in a far better place than they were in throughout the latter decades of the 20th Century.  But fishery managers went even further.

In December 2012, the Management Board adopted Addendum 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden, which adopted new biological reference points that provided greater protection for the spawning stock.  

In 2017, the Management Board took the next step, and moved toward the use of ecological, rather than biological, reference points to manage the menhaden fishery.  Under such approach, the focus of management would shift from merely maintaining a sustainable menhaden fishery to maintaining a sustainable menhaden population that was capable of fulfilling its role as one of the most important forage species on the Atlantic coast.

Such ecosystem reference points were included, along with traditional biological reference points, in a benchmark stock assessment released in January 2020.

A stock assessment update released in August 2022, employing such ecosystem reference points, found that

“The fishing mortality rate for the terminal year of 2021 was below the [ecosystem reference point] target and threshold and the fecundity was above the [ecosystem reference point] target and threshold.  Therefore, overfishing is not occurring and the stock is not considered overfished.”

It took more than 30 years, but moving from a management system driven by the reduction fishing industry, and solely focused on harvest, to a fishery management approach that emphasizes the menhaden’s ecological role was a clear victory for conservation advocates, particularly given the fact that the menhaden stock is not just meeting, but exceeding its management targets.

Today, most of the remaining complaints about menhaden management aren't biological in nature.  Instead, they arise out of some advocates' gut-level aversion to letting a single company, based in a single state, harvest over 60% of all menhaden landings.  It is an issue that arises out of the realm of economic and social philosophy, rather than the health of the resource itself.

Still, there is one remaining biological issue that has woven through the menhaden debate for at least a couple of decades:  Is it possible for concentrated fishing effort to deplete menhaden abundance in a discrete location, even if the stock is deemed healthy overall?

That’s a difficult question to answer.

The most recent research, including genetic research, supports the proposition that all menhaden on the Atlantic coast constitute a single stock.  Individual fish, belonging to such stock, can and typically do engage in long migrations, with menhaden from the waters off the Carolinas known to migrate as far north as Maine and as far south as Florida.

Despite such long migrations, some places can be largely devoid of menhaden at any given time.  The question, then, is whether such local absence of menhaden is due to completely natural causes, or whether heavy fishing pressure might play a role.  That question is particularly pertinent with regard to the Chesapeake Bay, a region that is not only heavily fished by purse seiners serving the reduction fishery, but is also an important spawning and nursery ground for striped bass, and hosts many other species that actively predate on menhaden.

No one really knows whether localized depletion is an issue or not.  The Management Board has properly taken a precautionary stance, and currently caps the reduction fleet’s harvest within the Bay at 51,000 metric tons.  However, Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden also admits that

“The Chesapeake Bay Reduction Fishery Cap was originally implemented in 2005 to prevent localized depletion of menhaden.  Given the concentrated harvest of menhaden within the Chesapeake Bay, there was concern that localized depletion could be occurring in the Bay.  In 2005, the Board established the American Menhaden Research Program (AMRP) to evaluate the possibility of localized depletion.  Results from the peer review report in 2009 were unable to conclude localized depletion is occurring in the Chesapeake Bay and noted that, given the high mobility of menhaden, the potential for localized depletion could only occur on a ‘relatively small scale for a relatively short time’.”

Thus, the issue of localized depletion still fuels a heated debate, with the reduction industry arguing against the Bay cap and conservation and recreational fishing advocates emphasizing the prudence of keeping such cap in place.

On February 8, the Virginia State Senate took action to resolve such dispute, passing a bill that would fund a study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.  Such study would calculate the population of menhaden in state waters over an 18-month period, while the reduction fleet continued to fish, and also survey the amount of bycatch caught, and often killed, in the very large nets used by that fleet.

Needless to say, Omega Protein, which operates the only remaining menhaden reduction plant on the Atlantic coast, opposes the Senate bill, seeing no need for such study.  The fact that Omega’s nets have been known to catch and kill such valued recreational species as red drum, one of the Virginia’s most iconic marine species, probably makes the company extremely reluctant to countenance any bycatch studies that might implicate its operations.

Given Omega’s history in the Bay, its very opposition to a study of both bycatch and localied menhaden depletion probably provides a good reason why such study should take place.

Unfortunately, when the Senate bill was sent to the Virginia House of Delegates for further review, it was not enthusiastically received.  The House Rules subcommittee largely gutted the legislation, amending it so that it only called on VIMS to provide details of a “potential” study’s scope, methodology, possible stakeholders, cost, and duration.  Omega Protein supported the watered-down bill, with its lobbyist noting that

“The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission…in April of 2021 had a study that suggests it would take five to seven years to do this, probably as much as 10,”

the implication being that the 18-month study proposed in the Senate bill was too short to accomplish its goal.

A number of conservation and angling groups also supported the House version of the study bill, perhaps believing that it at least provided a starting place from which research could begin.  

Such motivation could be heard in the words of Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, who observed,

“We’re often told that there is no science to support our claims.  Now we finally have an opportunity to get some science.”

It would be unfortunate if that opportunity slipped away.

While it’s impossible to know what a study might reveal, if localized depletion is occurring, it could have a significant negative impact on striped bass and other Chesapeake species, including not only fish, but also marine mammals and fish-eating birds.

More research is needed, and there is no good reason why such research should not begin soon.


Sunday, February 19, 2023



Years ago, it seemed that aquaculture might be the answer to some of the problems plaguing fish stocks. 

It has been more than a century since wild-caught game disappeared from most United States markets; commercial hunting for waterfowl was banned in 1919.  

While some commercial fishing still continues in inland waters, it is generally restricted to catfish, some panfish, and “rough fish” such as buffalo, drum, and carp.  

With just about all of the meat and poultry that we buy coming from farms, and even some of the most popular freshwater finfish, such as rainbow trout, catfish, and Arctic char, coming from production facilities and not from nature, it didn’t seem unreasonable that commercial fishing in salt water, at least for inshore species, would eventually be either supplemented or supplanted by fish raised in coastal farms.

To some extent, that has occurred.  Most of the striped bass that show up in typical markets are actually farmed striped bass/white bass hybrids.  Just about all of the Atlantic salmon sold have also been raised in pens.  Other finfish species are raised domestically in smaller amounts.  The United States hosts a substantial fishery for wild shrimp, yet most Americans tend to purchase cheaper crustaceans that were farmed overseas.  Artificially propagated oysters, mussels, and clams undoubtedly far outnumber their naturally-raised counterparts on restaurant menus and in fish market bins.

But the development of aquaculture, particularly for finfish, has not been trouble-free.  Just as cattle infected native elk an bison with brucellosis in the early 1900s, farmed fish in coastal waters can infect wild populations with diseases and increase their exposure to various parasites such as sea lice.  There is also the risk that fish can escape fish farms, survive, and become a threat to native ecosystems, as occurred in the Mississippi River watershed when flooding allowed Asian carp to leave overflowing farm ponds and enter natural waterways.

Such threats to native ecosystems have led some jurisdictions to look past aquaculture’s promise, and give more serious consideration to the potential threats that it poses to native fish populations.

On November 17, 2022, in the State of Washington, the Commissioner of Public Lands issued an executive order prohibiting commercial net pen aquaculture on state-owned aquatic lands, and ending 40 years of net pen aquaculture operations in the state.  The executive order was the last link in a chain of events dating back to August 2017, when a poorly maintained salmon pen collapsed and released 250,000 Atlantic salmon, not native to Washington’s waters, into the state’s coastal sea.  That escape led the Washington legislature, in 2018, to pass a bill prohibiting the farming of non-native fish in the state’s marine waters; such legislation led, indirectly, to the total ban on net pens that was put in place last November.

The executive order noted that

“salmon and steelhead populations across Washington State, and in particular in the Salish Sea, are not recovering.  Further, salmon and steelhead are integral parts of the Salish Sea ecosystem, cultural identity, and Tribal Treaty Rights.  In addition, Southern Resident Killer Whales continue to be endangered due to a lack of prey, noise and disturbance, and toxics and other pollution.  Commercial finfish net pen aquaculture poses risks to the State, many of which cannot be avoided even with best management practices.  It is important to ensure that commercial finfish net pen aquaculture does not contribute added stressors to salmon, steelhead, Southern Resident Killer Whales, or the ecosystem.”

Although Washington has banned net pen aquaculture, the state’s Department of Natural Resources is actively promoting finfish aquaculture in land-based facilities, that do not create the same disease, parasite, pollution, or escape issues that are endemic to the net pens.

Washington’s decision to ban net pens puts that state in accord with Alaska, California, and Oregon, all of which had previously banned such aquaculture facilities. 

As one might suspect, the decision to ban the net pens met with both praise and condemnation, depending upon the commenter’s perspective.  Conservation advocates, which included many of the state’s indigenous tribes, were supportive.  A spokesman for the Wild Fish Conservancy stated that

“The benefits of these actions for the recovery of wild fish, water quality, and the greater health of Puget Sound cannot be overstated.  Immediately, this action will cease untreated chronic pollution that has been discharged daily at these aquatic sites for over forty years.  Finally, these heavily polluted and degraded sites will have the opportunity to heal and begin the process of natural restoration as part of the largest passive restoration project in Washington’s history.

“The decision will also eliminate many major risk factors that harm the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead, including ending the risk of exposure to viruses, parasites, and diseases that are amplified ans spread at unnatural levels by massive densities of farmed fish and the risk of future catastrophic escape events in which farmed fish could compete with, attempt to interbreed, or spread pathogens to threatened and endangered wild fish.”

Leonard Forsman, the Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said,

“Ending commercial finfish farming in our ancestral waters is an important step towards protecting marine water quality, salmon populations, and the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.  The impacts of commercial finfish farming put all that at risk, and threatened treaty rights and ultimately our way of life and culture.”

However, others disagreed.  W. Ron Allen, Chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe, which operated a joint venture with fish-farming giant Cooke Aquaculture, argued that

“This action is an irresponsible denial of what science has proven: marine net pen aquaculture is safe for the environment and the most sustainable, climate friendly way to feed the world…today’s DNR announcement was political; crafted to placate ill-informed activist groups who refuse to admit the vast array of scientific studies show us that well-regulated aquaculture is not a threat to the environment, or wild salmon.”

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, the aquaculture company’s west coast subsidiary, predictably issued a statement calling Washington’s action “short sighted,” and arguing that it had no scientific basis.

However, banning net pen aquaculture seems to be a continuing trend along the eastern Pacific coast of North America.  Last week, the Canadian province of British Columbia announced that it would not renew licenses for 15 net pen salmon farms, because the area where such farms are located

“is a key migration route for wild salmon where narrow passages [between islands] bring migrating juvenile salmon into close contact with the farms.”

The province’s Fisheries Minister, Joyce Murray, noted that the British Columbia government is working to transition away from net pen farming in coastal waters.  Ms. Murray’s actions were taken at the direction of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has charged her with shutting down all of the province’s 79 net pen salmon farms by 2025.

As in Washington, the salmon farming industry opposed such action, arguing that it would lead to the loss of important jobs.  The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance complained,

“This decision goes against First Nations Reconciliation, increases food costs to Canadians and undermines food security and has broad-reaching implications for employment and economic opportunity for people in rural, coastal and indigenous communities, and our global trading markets.”

However, the First Nations, speaking for themselves as part of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, apparently do not agree with the aquaculture industry’s comments, noting that over 100 First Nations support the move away from the net pens.

Lost in the debate, particularly when industry spokesmen begin to hide behind claims of increasing food costs and decreasing food security for local residents (claims that begin to seem somewhat questionable, when uttered in the same sentence with concerns for global trading markets), is the fact that eliminating net pens does not equate to eliminating all salmon aquaculture.  As specifically noted by the State of Washington, aquaculture may continue in land-based facilities, that present no threat to wild runs of salmon.

Yes, land-based aquaculture will almost certainly cost a little more than the net pens.  But for those who view the traditional runs of wild Pacific salmon as something priceless, the extra expense of going to land-based facilities would appear a trivial cost to pay.





Thursday, February 16, 2023



I’m not sure how many fisheries meetings I’ve attended over the years, but seeing that I started soon after the striped bass stock collapsed back in the late 1970s, and have continued ever since then, the number is far from small.  I’ve spoken, submitted written comments, sat on a regional fishery management council and on various advisory boards, and generally spent a lot of my life arguing for healthy and sustainable fish populations.

A lot of other people have done similar things.

But as we invest our time and effort trying to improve the management process, there is one nagging question that stays in our minds:  Are fisheries managers really listening, and do they care what we say?

A few decades ago, I had a brief conversation with someone at the National Marine Fisheries Service that shed some light on that question.

Bluefin tuna was a hot issue at the time.  The stock had declined badly, and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, weighed down with members from Europe and East Asia that were reluctant to reduce their landings, was slow to take any meaningful action.  However, sometime around the late 1980s or, perhaps, early 1990s, they finally began to reduce nations’ quotas.

In response, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed regulations to reduce the landings of United States’ fishermen, regardless of whether they fished from purse seiners, longliners, or private recreational boats, and a lot of people weren’t too happy about where things were going.  

Back in those days, NMFS used to hold hearings on highly migratory species like tuna at a Holiday Inn near Long Island’s Islip/MacArthur airport, and those hearings drew a colorful crowd.

There were crews off the big pelagic boats—mostly longliners, with maybe some purse seiners thrown in—who came down from Gloucester on a rented bus with enough beer on board to keep passengers happy throughout the ride; they’d settle into the hearing room with both hands filled with drinks from the hotel bar, and opposed the proposed rules with comments that were undeniably colorful if, perhaps, not completely coherent.

There were local commercial—general category—boats who provided more sober comments opposing the pending regulations.  More opposition came fromn the charter boat fleet, which argued that if their passengers could only keep one—or perhaps it was two—school bluefin apiece, it would most assuredly put the boats out of business, although they might be able to survive if the captain and mate could each keep a fish, too.

There was one guy—I don’t recall his affiliation—who tried to argue that bluefin weren’t really in trouble, because a lot of the fish we thought were bluefin were really longtail tuna, a fish native to the western Pacific and Indian oceans that have never been found within maybe 7,500 miles of the U.S. East Coast, although that detail didn’t appear to concern the speaker.

And then there were folks like me, private boat anglers with various views of the proposed rules, which ranged from support to strong opposition.  I tried to base my comments on the available science, and the details provided in the document describing the pending regulations.  Others, I think, tried to do the same thing.

A week or two later, for reasons that I can no longer recall, I made a telephone call to the person at NMFS who had primary responsibility for the proposed bluefin rules.  When he picked up the phone, I introduced myself, and as soon as he heard my name, he said “You were the lawyer at the Long Island hearing.”

No fewer than thirty people, and probably well over forty, spoke at the Long Island event, and in the three minutes that they gave me to speak, I certainly never mentioned my profession, which was irrelevant to the subject at hand.  He remembered me simply because I stuck to the subject, referred to the proposed rule and the information provided by NMFS, and presented a logical argument in support of my position.  He guessed what I did for a living for the same reasons.

That experience revealed a couple of things about the rulemaking and management process that we would all do well to remember.

The first is that managers really do listen to the comments being made.  At the time of the bluefin debate, I attended fisheries meetings, but was nowhere near as involved as I became later on; there was no reason for anyone at NMFS to know who I was.  Yet the manager was listening to the comments closely enough to remember my name.

The other is that well-thought out and well-presented comments will stick in a managers’ mind, particularly when they contrast with many of the other comments made at the meeting; when a lot of people are just opposing (or supporting) a particular management action, without providing much of an explanation why, a calm and logical argument can stand out above the others.

So why bring this up today?

Largely because there has been a lot of recent talk denigrating the value of public comment in the fishery management process.  More specifically, a number of striped bass anglers are unhappy that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board didn’t vote to reject even the possibility of commercial quota transfers when it met to consider Addendum I to Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan a few weeks ago.

Personally, I believe that such transfers are a bad idea.  But the fact that the Management Board chose to seek additional information before taking action, instead of merely rubber stamping the 2,000 or so comments—98% of all comments received—which called for a continued ban on quota transfers, doesn’t mean that it is “corrupt,” “was just checking the boxes” by calling for comments, or that it “doesn’t care what the public wants,” for the comment period isn’t a referendum.  The side with the most votes doesn’t necessarily win.

Nevertheless, public comment is vitally important to the management process.  Anglers shouldn’t refrain from making comments, simply because managers didn’t do what the majority asked for the last time around.

The role of public comment is easiest to understand on the federal level.  The Office of the Federal Register (the Federal Register being the publication in which all rulemaking activities, including proposed and final rules dealing with fisheries, must be published) provides “A Guide to the Rulemaking Process,” which is a very useful summary of how federal rulemaking works.  In the section “How do public comments affect the final rule,” the guide explains

“The notice-and-comment process enables anyone to submit a comment on any part of the proposed rule.  This process is not like a ballot initiative or an up-or-down vote in a legislature.  An agency is not permitted to base its final rule on the number of comments in support of the rule over those in opposition to it.  At the end of the process, the agency must base its reasoning and conclusions on the rulemaking record, consisting of the comments, scientific data, expert opinions, and facts accumulated during the pre-rule and proposed rule stages…

“If the rulemaking record contains persuasive new data or policy arguments, or poses difficult questions or criticisms, the agency may decide to terminate the rulemaking.  Or, the agency may decide to continue the rulemaking but change aspects of the rule to reflect these new issues.  If the changes are major, the agency may publish a supplemental proposed rule.  If the changes are minor, or a logical outgrowth of the issues and solutions discussed in the proposed rules, the agency may proceed with a final rule.  [emphasis added]”

Thus, while comments are an important part of the rulemaking process, the comments submitted are only a part of what regulators must consider.  Other factors can, and sometimes do, outweigh the comments received.  At the same time, by raising issues that might not have been considered, or were inadequately addressed before, public comments can have a significant impact on the course of rulemaking.  An agency must reply to every substantial issue raised during the comment process, and if such agency finds that a comment raises a legitimate legal or policy issue, such comment can cause a proposed rule to be reconsidered.

At the same time, agencies are far more concerned with the quality than the quantity of the comments received.  When confronted with differing claims or opinions, agencies are legally entitled to exercise their discretion in deciding which of the competing arguments will prevail.  However, such exercise of discretion is not unlimited; whatever decision an agency makes must be supported by some bit of evidence contained in the administrative record.  Decisions that are unsupported by such evidence are deemed to be an abuse of the agency’s discretion and, because they are unsupported by evidence, may be invalidated by a court undertaking a judicial review of the rule.

If an agency takes an action that is contrary to existing law, the courts will invalidate such action for that reason, too.  As Capt. John McMurray, who wrote a piece on the same subject for the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s blog, “From the Waterfront,” recently noted,

“when you consider species like summer flounder, black seabass or scup, well, I can tell you first hand as a Council member (years ago)—if the Council simply made decisions based on majority public comment with those fisheries, then I’m just about certain they would all be overfished right now.  Despite overwhelming public comment to increase harvest, managers focused on preventing overfishing and long term sustainability, primarily because federal law required them to.  [emphasis added]”

I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council a few years before Capt. McMurray was appointed, and can vouch for that statement; meetings that set recreational summer flounder specifications, in particular, were often a circus, with speakers castigating and sometimes threatening Council members who failed to support the demands of the mob, even though such demands were clearly contrary to federal law.  In such cases, majority rule would have been equivalent to mob rule, and contrary to the public interest.

Yet, those who argue that managers must follow the majority’s wishes would yield to the cries from the crowd, regardless of their legal or scientific merits.

Although laws differ slightly from state to state, state administrative law is generally similar to the federal practice.  State agencies required to create an administrative record, and agency actions that are not supported by that administrative record will fail legal challenge.

When we get to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, things are a little different.  That’s because the ASMFC is not a federal agency, but rather an interstate compact.  Because it is not a federal agency, a federal appellate court, in New York v. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, decided in 2010 that the federal Administrative Procedures Act, which governs federal rulemaking and sets the standards for judicial review of agency decisions, does not apply to the ASMFC.  Thus, it appears that courts can neither review nor set aside the ASMFC’s management actions.

Even if they could, such review would, in most cases, prove challenging.  The Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act grants the ASMFC the authority to manage coastal fisheries but, unlike the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fishing in federal waters, creates no legally enforceable standards for fishery management plans.  Unlike federal agencies, the ASMFC may exercise its unbridled discretion when setting management measures.

In addition, the ASMFC is technically not a rulemaking body.  It is a fishery management organization, which develops fishery management plans and fishery management measures, but the states must then adopt such measures through each state’s rulemaking process.

All of those factors take the ASMFC outside the body of law that addresses public comment and the rulemaking process.

Still, the folks who sit on the management boards are not tone deaf, and they are not unconcerned with the impacts of their actions on the fisheries that they manage, and also on the perceived legitimacy, and possibly the future, of the ASMFC itself.  They understand that outraging the public will not benefit the ASMFC.

Thus, there is a practical balance that, while not legally enforceable, is nearly as binding as the laws that bind federal agencies.  Certainly, the ASMFC has stepped a little too far outside the lines at times, and has taken actions that seemed to defy not only the science but common sense; had it followed its own management plan in 2014, and initiated a 10-year rebuilding plan before the 2015 year class of striped bass began to recruit into the commercial and recreational fisheries, the striped bass stock might well be in a better place than it finds itself in today.

At the same time, there is no doubt that, throughout the development of Amendment 7 to the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan, the majority of the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board were very aware of, and very responsive to, public comment.  The amendment that finally emerged last May was very different, and far better for the striped bass, than the document that was contemplated when the amendment process began.

If the striped bass stock is, in fact, rebuilt by 2029, the Management Board’s willingness to heed public comment will be much of the reason why.

The plain truth is that nobody wins every fight.  And sometimes, for a season or two, it can feel like you’re not winning anything at all.  But that’s not a reason for anglers to walk away and stop commenting on issues that concern them.

For even if their comments only make a difference once in a while—and they’ve recently been doing far better than that—the wins, however far apart they may be, will still leave our fish stocks in better shape than they had been in before.


Sunday, February 12, 2023



If someone wants to understand why fisheries managers get grey hairs, they only need to look at the northern stock of black sea bass; that is, those fish found north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Start with the fact that the species is a protogynous hermaphrodite, an animal that begins life as a female, then transitions to male at some older, larger point.  That’s not too unusual a life history; it’s shared by quite a few species, including many of the not-too-distantly related groupers.

Except that north of Cape Hatteras, not all black sea bass follow the hermaphroditic lifestyle; some are apparently born male, and some seem to remain female throughout their lives, meaning that fishery managers need not only consider the age and size at which the transition from female to male occurs, and whether and how such transition might be impacted by fishing pressure, but also the effects of small “sneaker” males and larger, more fecund females on spawning potential.

From there, add the fact that black sea bass seem to be one of the species that is benefitting from a warming ocean.  It is expanding its range farther north, into the rocky waters off New England, where the stock might (or, perhaps, might not) be benefitting from the abundance of hard-bottom habitat that is far less available off the mid-Atlantic coast.  In addition, the success of any black sea bass year class is highly dependent upon the temperature and salinity of the water it encounters during its first winter at the edge of the continental shelf; a warming ocean makes it more likely that such favorable conditions will be found much more often.

Something seems to be favoring the species right now, because black sea bass have, for the past decade or so, been at a very high level of abundance in the northeast for the past decade or so; although accurate historical records are limited, it is very possible that it has recently been enjoying unprecedentedly high level of abundance in the region.

One might think that such abundance would make black sea bass an easy species to manage, but that has not proven to be the case.  Instead, the black sea bass fishery, and in particular, the recreational black sea bass fishery, presents one of the most difficult current challenges for East Coast fishery managers.  The recreational fishery has proven to be nearly unmanageable.

Part of the problem comes from the fact that abundance drives recreational fishing effort.  Anglers tend to target the fish that are easiest to catch, so as black sea bass became more available, more and more fishermen began to target them, and such increase in effort, also fueled by a decline in summer flounder, outpaced the increase in sea bass abundance.  Regulations grew more restrictive in response. Fishery managers never seemed able to get in front of the problem, yet refused to take the one action that could have halted the spiral of excessive landings leading to greater restrictions:  Adopting an annual catch target that accounts for the management uncertainty that has always plagued the process of setting annual regulations.

As a result, going into the 2023 season, it appears that managers will have to adopt additional restrictions once again, in order to achieve a 10% reduction in landings.

Part of the problem probably comes from the fact that the northern stock of black sea bass seems to consist of three separate breeding populations which don’t seem to mix on their summer spawning grounds but, because of differing migration patterns, demonstrate a pattern of partial mixing over the winter. 

The northern spawning population summers between central Long Island, New York—approximately the area around Moriches Inlet—into New England, and spends its winters at the edge of the continental shelf, somewhere between Long Island/New Jersey and Virginia/North Carolina.  The central spawning population summers and spawns between central Long Island and northern Virginia, and engages in shorter winter migrations in a generally southeast direction, while the southern spawning population summers off southern Virginia and norther North Carolina, and makes seasonal migrations in an east/west direction.

The black sea bass stock assessment tries to capture such population differences by assuming a northern and southern sub-stock, divided by Hudson Canyon, off the Long Island/New Jersey coast. 

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took a slightly different tack, and has created three different management regions; one such region includes New York and New England, one only the state of New Jersey, and one the states between Delaware and northern North Carolina.  Regulations for each region differ, and don’t necessarily track regional abundance. 

Counterintuitively, the northern region, which hosts the most fish during the summer, also has the most restrictive regulations.  For example, in 2022, Massachusetts set a 4-fish bag limit, 16-inch minimum size, and May 21-September 4 season, while New York adopted the same 16-inch size limit, but split its season into two parts, with a 3-fish bag limit from June 23-August 31, and a 6-fish bag from September 30 through the end of the year.

New Jersey, on the other hand, adopted a far more complex, and ultimately more permissive, set of rules, that included a 10-fish bag limit and 13-inch minimum size between May 17 and June 19, closed the season from June 20 through June 30, reopened the season with a 2-fish bag limit for the period July 1 through August 31, closed it again from September 1 through October 6, reopened it again from October 7 through October 26 with an increased, 10-fish bag limit, before closing it for just five days, October 27 through October 31, and finally reopening it for the rest of the year with a higher, 15-fish bag. 

The southern states adopted regulations that were certainly simpler than New Jersey’s, but were also slightly more permissive, even though the number of black sea bass in southern waters is relatively small.  Virginia’s 13-inch minimum size, 15-fish bag limit, and a season that ran from May 15 through December 11, were typical, although the rules differed slightly in other states.

Because of the regional management structure, the same fish may be treated differently at different times of the year.  A fifteen-inch black sea bass might be safe in Massachusetts during the summer, but when it migrates southeast in the fall, and winters on grounds accessible to boats from New Jersey or states even farther south, it may be legally landed; bag limits nearly four times as high as the limit in Massachusetts can result in many such fish being removed from the stock. 

Such regulatory disparity can easily make Massachusetts (and Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York) anglers ask why recreational black sea bass fishermen are so tightly restricted in the northeast, when the same sea bass that northeastern fishermen must release during the summer can and will be killed elsewhere on the coast during the winter season.

More generally, such restrictive regulations cause northeastern anglers to wonder why, with black sea bass so abundant in that region, they must endure the most restrictive regulations on the coast, when anglers in states farther south, where sea bass are less abundant, are allowed to harvest more and smaller fish.

It's probably not surprising that the current regulatory scheme is causing some real unhappiness among northeastern anglers.  Nor is it all that surprising that some anglers are expressing their dissatisfaction by ignoring the black sea bass rules.

Such rule breaking has been particularly evident in the party boat sector, where gross violations of black sea bass bag limits have occurred.  I’ve reported on such violations before, when anglers on some Montauk party boats were caught keeping as many as 90-plus sea bass, instead of their legal limit of three.  Just last week, while reading the most recent newsletter of the Suffolk Alliance of Sportsman, I came across an item written by an environmental conservation officer reporting on illegal happenings here on Long Island.  It read,

“Many anglers are done fishing by December but, for those willing to take a long trip way offshore, there is still good black sea bass fishing to be had.  [Environmental conservation officers] Perkins, Cacciola, Hilton, and DeVito are aware of this fishery, and targeted a party boat returning to Captree State Park on the evening of December 29th.  Complainants said that the target boat was keeping over-limit black sea bass, and ECOs had written the boat tickets in late summer for short fluke.  As the boat arrived at the dock, ECOs quickly realized that there were many anglers with over-limit black sea bass, and began to collect IDs and associate fish to each person.  When the situation was controlled, the violators were split up, interviewed, then issued tickets.  Some fishermen admitted they knew the limit was just 6 black sea bass, some claimed the mates and captain told them it didn’t matter, and one tried to claim it was a ‘New Year’s Limit.’  In total, 14 fishermen were written tickets for over limit black sea bass and over 100 fish were seized…The captain of the vessel was also ticketed for underreporting catch on the vessel trip report and over limit black sea bass…  [emphasis added]”

Reading such report, two things stand out.  The first is that the environmental conservation officers were apparently responding to complainants’ tips, which suggests that incidents of anglers going over the black sea bass limit, at least on that particular boat, were fairly common events.  The other is that the crew of the boat seemed to be not only aware of, but actively supportive of, such overages, and encouraged passengers to violate the law.  While such active encouragement has not yet been proven, the fact that the enforcement officers split up the alleged poachers, and yet heard the same story from multiple sources, strongly suggests that the claim is true.

Such connivance on the part of for-hire crew is not limited to New York, but has occurred elsewhere in the region.  It does not appear that we’re going to see better compliance at any time soon; at the January 2023 meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, one Montauk party boat captain announced that, if black sea bass regulations become any more restrictive this year—and that will almost certainly happen—he would no longer try to keep his customers in compliance; he blatantly challenged law enforcement to board him and try to enforce the rules.

In an effort to maximize black sea bass landings at a time when abundance is very high, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted a so-called “Harvest Control Rule” that would strictly limit harvest reductions, even in the face of gross recreational overharvest, when the spawning stock biomass of black sea bass (and three other species) is more than 150% of the biomass target.  Such approach would allow the Council to sidestep the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, by setting annual harvest limits that exceed the annual catch limit for the recreational sector.  Such an approach is of questionable legal validity, and has not yet been approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

At the same time, at least when viewed from one perspective, such Harvest Control Rule doesn’t seem unreasonable; if black sea bass are at a very high level of abundance, the stock is in no immediate peril if somewhat excessive levels of harvest, and even outright overfishing, are tolerated for a few years.  At the same time, while spawning stock biomass remains very high, with the last stock assessment update estimating it at about 210% of the target level, such biomass has been falling steadily since peaking in 2014, and may well decline farther toward the biomass target.  Should that occur, regulations will, at some point, become much more restrictive.

So if fishery managers maintain relatively liberal regulations in place for the short term, in response to protests from some elements of the angling public, they do so with (hopefully) the awareness that, at some point in the future, they may be forced to adopt regulations that will appear extremely restrictive, and probably draw an equally extreme reaction from parts of the angling community, in order to maintain spawning stock biomass close to the biomass target.

It's the classic case of deciding whether to make a small down payment on sustainability today, in order to maintain the stock close to current levels for a longer period of time, or to maximize current harvest and, in doing so, make it more likely that a very substantial landings reduction will probably be needed five or ten years down the road.

For fishery managers, who will eventually face hostile public opinion no matter what option they choose, it seems very much like a lose-lose proposition.

So is there any way to effectively manage the so-far practically unmanageable recreational black sea bass fishery in the northeast?

The answer may well be yes.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s regional management system is on the right track, but is badly in need of revision.  The three regions currently recognized don’t really reflect what’s happening on and under the water.  There is no convincing argument for establishing a region containing only New Jersey.

While some small part of southern New Jersey may share the summer black sea bass fishery with Delaware, it is more closely connected to New England and New York.  During the summer, boats from New York and northern New Jersey share the same waters, often fishing side by side on the same wreck or piece of structure.  During the winter, fish that have migrated down from New England and eastern Long Island fuel the greater part of New Jersey’s fishery.  Thus, the ASMFC’s management plan should include only two regions, one composed of New England, New York, and New Jersey, which all share similar regulations and the same pool of fish, and one composed of states between Delaware and North Carolina.  Such structure would combine the fish currently allocated to the two northernmost regions, allow New York and New England to adopt somewhat more generous regulations, and provide more equitable management measures among states that largely share the same body of fish.

To improve the management process, regulations should be made more consistent across regions and across time.  Breaking regulations down by state, and then further breaking down state regulations by time of year, results in less precise landings data, and makes it more likely that regulations will fail to adequately constrain recreational landings.  To accomplish the needed end, black sea bass management should resemble the management approach currently used for scup, with the states responsible for the great majority of the landings—in the case of black sea bass, Massachusetts through New Jersey—all adopting the same size limit, bag limit, and season length. 

If NMFS ultimately disapproves the Harvest Control Rule, an annual catch target that considers management uncertainty should be adopted.

When setting or revising seasons, the release mortality rate should be considered.  While such rate is relatively low—about 15%--in the summer, shallow-water fishery, barotrauma causes it to rise sharply, to about 50%, in the winter fishery, which is prosecuted in much deeper water.  Thus, minimizing or completely shutting down the portion of the season that occurs concurrent with the deep-water fishery would eliminate substantial waste of the black sea bass resource.

Finally, a more aggressive approach to black sea bass poaching needs to be taken, as the mere threat of fines, combined with the low likelihood that any individual violation will be detected, has proven to be inadequate to deter illegal landings.  Administrative sanctions, which have rarely been used up to now, offer an attractive option.

For individual anglers, revoking the fishing license of repeat offenders, thus invoking the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, would probably have far greater deterrent effect than the possibility of just paying a few dollars for illegal fish.  Pursuant to such Compact, states share information on poachers with all other Compact members (currently, every state except Hawaii), and anyone who has a license revoked or suspended due to illegal activity in one state will become ineligible for hunting, trapping, and/or fishing licenses, for the duration of the revocation/suspension, in 48 other states as well.

An angler is likely to think twice before risking that sort of sanction.

When it comes to for-hire vessels with a history of repeat violations—and need for repeat violations should be emphasized, as a single misdeed is better addressed with less drastic measures—states should be more willing to suspend the vessel’s for-hire license, and keep it tied to the dock for some period during the fishing season.  The potential for such a penalty would have a far greater deterrent effect than the threat of a simple fine; although the required administrative hearing would be time-consuming, should a suspension be imposed, it would not only sanction the offending vessel, but provide any vessel operator tempted to break the law with a strong incentive to stay honest.

Managing the recreational fishery for black sea bass presents challenging issues, yet such issues are not insurmountable.  Provided that the political will exists, it is possible to create a system that will be more equitable, and be far more defensible, than the system employed today.

Such change will not be easy.  But it is needed nonetheless.









Thursday, February 9, 2023



It seems that every level of human endeavor has its own “big lie,” an idea that, although patently untrue, is repeated ever more loudly and insistently by its proponents, who hope that if they do so long enough, people will accept the falsehood as truth.

Probably the biggest lie in fisheries management, currently being perpetuated by groups such as the Center for Sportfishing Policy and Coastal Conservation Association, is that fisheries management is more effective when carried out on the state, rather than on the federal, level.

There’s no objective support for such proposition, if by “effective” fisheries management, one means the sort of management that leads to the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks, and maintaining such stocks at healthy and sustainable levels for the long term.  

While federal fishery managers have an excellent record of ending overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks, with the National Marine Fisheries Service having fully rebuilt 47 once-overfished stocks since the turn of this century, state managers have a far more checkered record; some of the most important state-managed recreational fish stocks, including striped bass, southern flounder, speckled trout, and even tarpon, along with local populations of snook, tautog, and red drum, are not doing too well.

When exposed to the harsh and objective light of science, supported by equally objective data, the big lie is quickly revealed; state-managed fisheries aren’t doing too well.

But that’s only true if one believes that science-based management, which yields healthy and abundant fish stocks for all stakeholders to use and enjoy, is the right criterion by which to judge the management process.

The federal fishery management process, bolstered by the legally enforceable management standards included in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, is fairly hard to warp in a way that will favor one stakeholder group over another, or that elevates the interests of a particular group over those of the general public.  With enough work, it can still be done, but it takes a lot of time, effort, and political clout, along with enough money to buy all three, to get there.

We actually saw it done—twice—in 2017, when then Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross overrode, without even consulting federal fisheries scientists, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s finding that New Jersey was out of compliance with the ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan, and also approved an illegal extension of the private boat recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, knowing that overfishing would certainly occur.  But even in an administration that held conservation concerns in deep contempt, and sought to monetize the nation’s natural resources, such “wins” took some work to achieve.

On the other hand, the state fisheries management process is easier to push in any desired direction.  While the fishery managers themselves are, with few exceptions, dedicated professionals who try their best to serve the public interest, they work for administrative agencies that are very much subject to the chief executive’s whims.  While the President of the United States is unlikely to get deeply involved in fisheries matters, state governors, who may be elected by fairly thin margins, are far more attuned to the politics that surround fisheries issues.

State fishery managers, far more than their federal counterparts, can find themselves in a position where they must do as the chief executive dictates—even if the best scientific information dictates otherwise.

So if one takes the position that the most effective fishery management process isn’t the one that’s driven by science, but rather by political influence, and if one prefers a system that caters to short-term economic concerns over one that works to assure the long-term health of fish stocks, then state fishery management programs begin to look very attractive.

We saw why, one more time, last week in Louisiana, when the political process again trumped scientific advice, and doomed the state’s speckled trout population to a tenuous and troubled future.

I’ve written about this topic many times before, beginning over six years ago, in September 2016.  By then, Louisiana’s speckled trout were already in significant decline, with a spawning stock biomass about half of the target level.  Yet things have only gotten worse since then, despite the fact that the fishery was, and still is, overfished by any reasonable definition of that term.

It’s not that state managers haven’t tried to address the situation.  They acknowledge that

“overfishing and other factors have caused the stock to become almost completely comprised of smaller, younger fish.  While there are still some older and larger trout out there, nearly 95 percent of today’s stock is comprised of one and two-year old fish.  While it is true that larger fish are more likely to be female (and have more eggs per individual), these smaller fish make up the vast majority of spawning stock biomass (reproduction potential).  Given this imbalance, there is concern that a major collapse could occur in the event of a poor recruitment year (e.g. major freeze).  By decreasing the current creel limit and raising the minimum size, it is hoped that more of these young fish will be allowed to spawn and help the stock recover while rebuilding the older age classes of females.”

Louisiana’s state fisheries biologists invested about two years in constructing regulations that were generally acceptable to the state’s anglers, and yet would also allow the speckled trout stock to rebuild.  They ultimately proposed reducing the bag limit from 25 trout to 15, and raising the size limit to 13 ½ inches from 12. 

Even such more restrictive regulations were more permissive than those anywhere else on the Gulf Coast.  To the east, Louisiana’s neighboring state of Mississippi has a 15 fish bag limit and 15-inch minimum size, while to the west, Texas allows anglers to keep only 5 fish per day, with the same 15-inch minimum size, although no more than one of the five fish may be more than 25 inches in length.

In October 2022, Louisiana’s Wildlife and Fisheries Commission voted to approve the proposed regulations.

The science, and science-based management measures, had done the best that it could.  Now, it was time for politics to undo what the science had wrought.

While Louisiana fisheries managers had conducted surveys which found that

“a majority [of surveyed anglers] indicated they were moderately to extremely concerned for the spotted seatrout stock,”

and generally supported the proposed regulations, the sad fact is that individual anglers don’t have much political clout; such clout is largely reserved to the organizations with the money and contacts needed to move the political system.

In Louisiana, with respect to speckled trout, that boiled down to the Louisiana Charter Boat Association and the Louisiana chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, neither of which were enamored of the proposed regulations.

Neither organization seemed to have a problem with the proposed 15-fish bag limit; given that one angler, who was present at the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission meeting when it approved the proposed rules noted that

“The average guy catches two to five fish,”

such limit probably had no practical impact on fishermen.

However, both were adamantly opposed to the increase in the minimum size. 

The charter boat association claimed that it was hard to find a speckled trout more than 12 inches long—not surprising given how badly overfished the stock had become, and with continued overfishing removing most of the fish as soon as they grew into the existing size limit—and that a 13 ½ inch minimum would be bad for business.

The impacts of a continued decline in speckled trout abundance—spawning stock biomass is already at an unprecedented low level—on the charter business apparently never entered into the association’s considerations.  They may have yet not realized how difficult it will be to run a fishing business without any fish.

Coastal Conservation Association Louisiana claimed to be worried about the impact of a higher size limit on the number of larger, more fecund female trout—the same fish that both the state biologists and the charter boat association say no longer exist in appreciable numbers—and made the remarkable statement that

“Although Louisiana anglers harvest less than 2 trout per trip on average (according to [Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries]), we see a reduction from 25 fish to 15 fish as a reasonable move, in the spirit of conservation.”

CCA Louisiana also claimed that

“Based on our experience, changes in recreational regulations have rarely, if ever, resulted in a direct fishery recovery.”

Given that the speckled trout stock is both overfished and experiencing continued overfishing, that 99% of the fishing mortality is attributable to the recreational sector, and that Patricia Banks, assistant secretary of fisheries for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has flatly stated that

“The fact is that the population cannot sustain the level of removals that is going on right now.  We are taking too many fish out of our waters,”

it seems impossible to argue that reducing recreational landings would be the fastest, best, and really the only way to reduce the level of removals and stop overfishing from occurring.

However, such logic, along with the facts that support it, are no match for political maneuvering.  And so, after the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission approved the proposed regulations, they had to make it over one more hurdle—the state legislature, a place where politics ruled.

In that arena, given the recreational organizations lobbying against their approval, the proposed regulations were doomed.

Yet there are still hopes for Louisiana’s speckled trout.

Fishery managers could try to amend their proposal, in an effort to come up with something that the politically-connected fishing groups might accept.  However, at this point, it doesn’t appear that an increased size limit will meet with their approval, and the current size limit, absent an extremely small bag, won’t do the trout any good.

Fishery managers could also ask Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, to order the adoption of the proposed rules, and so cut the legislature out of the process.  That might be a somewhat more viable approach, but there is no guarantee that politics won’t prevail over science in the governor’s office as well.

If it does—or if the proposed rule never makes it that far—Louisiana’s speckled trout will be just one more species betrayed by the state management system, and one more victim of fisheries’ Big Lie.