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posted in: TRCP Marine

October 7, 2013

What’s Up With All These Weakfish?

Weakfish appear to be abundant again, and we should be protecting them…

 

 

I’m back from Montauk today, which was, I have to admit, a little disappointing.  I’ve been going there for the same two weeks for 12 years now, and this was without-a-doubt the worst two weeks I’ve ever experienced there.   The albies were virtually absent.  There were very few to no bass boils.  Seems like when they did start to come up, it was in small pods that didn’t stay up for longer than 10 seconds or so before an entire fleet of boats descended.  There were indeed stripers down deep on sand eels, some of which were quite large.  In fact we caught a handful of fish over 40-pounds, but it was, for the most part, jigging, down deep.  It certainly wasn’t the kind of fishing that makes Montauk, well… Montauk.

Why, who the H knows…  But the purpose of this blog is not to talk about Montauk, but to discuss weakfish.  Because, believe it or not, a bit west of the Point in 40 to 50’ depths, the bottom was often absolutely covered with them.  Not the 7’ to 10” spike fish that seemed to be abundant every Oct and haven’t yet recruited into the fishery, and likely wouldn’t recruit. These were nice fish in the 7 to 10-pound range.  We caught a bunch before the gillnets showed up anyway.

This sort of weakfish abundance isn’t restricted to Eastern Long Island.  I’ve actually got good numbers of weakfish minutes from my house in Oceanside.  Jamaica Bay has been full of them this summer.  And Cape Cod got a good slug of fish this spring and early summer.  In fact, if you look at the coastal fishing reports, it appears that weakfish catches were pretty good all over.  So…  What the hell?

I guess I should provide a little background here before moving forward.  Weakfish are really interesting to me.  When I first started guiding in 2000, in the spring we would catch just as many weakfish as we did stripers.  And if you recall, the bass fishing was pretty darn good back then, even though we didn’t have the extra-large fish we have now.  Still, in a 4-hour trip we’d consistently catch a dozen to two dozen schoolies with a few larger fish mixed in, and of course, every once in a while a really big fish.  And the weakfish were mixed in, in the same sort of numbers.  It was solid fishing on both fronts (note: remember this for a later point).  2001 to 2003 were just as good, but the weakfish just got larger.  Once we got into 2004 there were definitely fewer fish, but again, larger ones.

Then, in 2005 we saw a precipitous decline.  We caught a handful of very large fish, but certainly not in good numbers.  We couldn’t really target them, you’d just have to be lucky to come across one.  In 2006 we caught 4 weakfish the entire spring.  Every single one would have likely blown the IGFA weakfish fly category out of the water had I had a chance to take a girth measurement, but there was always an urgency to get those fish back in the water as soon as possible as we all knew we were witnessing a crash.  In 2007, we caught one fish, a fat 39-incher, probably close to the 20 pound mark.  I should also note here that the all-tackle record (a 19-pounder) was caught from the Jersey Shore in the spring of 2008.  The presence of small numbers of such large fish and no small or medium fish is a classic sign of an impending collapse, and, well, they collapsed.  Weakfish were in trouble then and, unsurprisingly, it got even worse before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) acted.

 

 

A 2009 stock assessment found that weakfish were badly depleted.  The stock had reached an all-time low of 2.9 million pounds, far below the “biomass threshold” of 22.4 million pounds, which is what scientists would consider a healthy stock.  This is an astonishing drop, since the East Coast harvest in 1980 was 80 million pounds.

One would think ASMFC would have shut the fishery down, but of course they didn’t.  Instead they gave anglers 1 fish per person and a 100 pound trip limit for commercial fishermen.  The argument was that this would allow for some data collection and some dead discards to be converted to catch.  Of course, this was one of the usual ASMFC excuses to allow people to continue to kill a badly depleted species.  Once you have such a “bycatch allowance” inevitably it results in a directed fishery, especially on the commercial side.

Moving on…  According to ASMFC biologists, the decline wasn’t due to fishing pressure.   Natural mortality had increased to a level between two to four times that of fishing mortality in recent years.  Surveys showed that juvenile weakfish populations continued to be strong (remember I mentioned all the spike weakfish we were catching in the fall) but that they were not making it to maturity.

Why?  There were all kinds of theories.  Perhaps the most irritating of which was that stripers were eating them all, or that stripers were eating all the forage.  Of course the people who wanted to be able to kill more stripers were pushing that argument.  But remember that I mentioned how abundant both striped bass and weakfish were from 2000 to 2004.  So in my mind the two species could most certainly coexist together in large numbers.  Sure, that’s just my anecdotal observation based on a very limited frame of reference, but here’s a hard example, dating farther back.  The explosion of weakfish in the early 1970s coincided with what was at the time the largest year class of striped bass ever recorded.  And since we’re on the issue of predation, the same sort of thing can be said in regards to bluefish.  Anglers harvested 95 million pounds of bluefish in 1981, and just 19 million pounds in 2008.  So weakfish were abundant when there were lots of bluefish around, and the stock crashed when bluefish numbers were low.  Explain that one to me. The point is, it’s very unlikely that stripers, or bluefish had anything to do with the weakfish crash.

A more palatable theory was that estuaries, which provide not only productive feeding areas, but spawning grounds for adult weakfish and important nursery areas for juveniles, were/are suffering from all sorts of negative influences, such as coastal development, point and nonpoint source pollution, dredging and filling, alteration of natural freshwater flow, treatment plants, power plant intakes… The list goes on.  Certainly, some if not all of these things likely contributed to the decline (along with fishing mortality of course) but given the fact that they are coming back now, I don’t believe that such degradation is the sole reason for the crash.

I think the species is just naturally cyclical.  When you look at the history, weakfish have experienced extreme highs and lows.  They virtually disappeared in the early 50s and showed no sign of recovery until 1972. The early 70s began a period of tremendous growth in the fishery, which peaked in 1980. Then the fishery declined steadily throughout the 1980s, dropping to a low in 1994.  Then the stock grew slowly through 2000. Then they began decline again, and by 2008, were reduced to historic lows.  And that’s pretty much where we’ve been ever since.

Such highs and lows are precisely why I think weakfish are very vulnerable.  During what appears to be a natural ebb, or perhaps more accurately, during a series of years where conditions are not favorable for recruitment (BTW, if you didn’t know already, “recruitment” is just a fancy word for young-fish-growing-up), we shouldn’t be pounding on them, if we want them to come back.  But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Circling back to the gillnets out in Montauk.  I can’t imagine they aren’t going through their 100-pounds of weakfish a day.  And without a doubt, given the concentration of fish there before the gillnetters I witnessed set their nets, I am pretty damn certain that way more than 100-pounds were caught in said gill net, which were either discarded dead – weakfish are not a resilient species, and are unlikely to survive being entangled in a gillnet – or taken illegally.  And since we’re on the subject of  gillnets, there were a bunch of gillnets in the water every single day I was out there, which were of course targeting striped bass.  Given all the stripers that converge on Montauk this time of the year, I can’t for the life of me understand how such fishermen don’t go through their allotted tags in a matter of days…  I could imagine they could burn through all of those tags in only one!  Even with tags traded/obtained by/from other commercial fishermen.  But I’m gonna resist the urge to get on that tangent.

So getting back to weakfish.  Yes, there appear to be a slug of fish around.  Good ones too.  It would have been great if ASMFC had done the right thing and simply stopped fishing on them when they were at historic lows.  Frankly, we still shouldn’t be fishing on them, even with a one fish bag limit.  And certainly we shouldn’t allow a 100-pound limit for commercial fishermen.  Weakfish are a tight schooling fish, very susceptible to large bycatch events, not just in gillnets but trawlers as well.  Instead of a 100-pound trip limit, a total bycatch cap would serve the stock much better.  In other words the gillnet fishery should be shut down when it’s been determined that a certain number of weakfish are caught/killed.  I mean for Christ’s sake, give this fish a chance to come back.  They could be a boon to the fishing industry, both recreational and commercial, if we gave them a chance to fully fill in.  Unfortunately, that’s not really how things work at ASMFC.

So…  Will we see this big body of weakfish next year, or in the subsequent years?  That’s of course anyone’s guess.  But given ASMFC management history, and what I’m seeing on the water, I’m not very confident we will.  I do hope I’m wrong.  These are some of the most beautiful fish in the sea, with so many shades of purple and pink.  And they eagerly take both flies and small jigs fished on light tackle.  Not to mention, it would be a boon to my business, particularly in light of the striped bass decline.  I’m keeping my figures cross, but experience has made me cynical.

One Response to “What’s Up With All These Weakfish?”

  1. Bill Wyrebek

    I use to fish for Squeteague in the Sakkonet River.(RI) They are the most beautiful fish. I fished in the early 70s and I admit that I landed a few pair of lips until I figured out the right rod and drag setting. I stopped when the fish were gone. Now is the time to put permanent regulations in place to protect these fish from the destroyers. Who are the destroyers? Those commercial fishermen that whine and complain about their livilhood disappearing and demanding that the government subsidize them so they can continue to be fishermen fishing for non-existing fish stocks that they themselves overfished. NOAA has just announce it is spending 35 million dollars to subsidized these fishermen. That money would be better spent on hiring agents to patrol, catch and punish those fishermen (All) that break the law.

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posted in: TRCP Marine

What’s Up With All These Weakfish?

Weakfish appear to be abundant again, and we should be protecting them…

 

 

I’m back from Montauk today, which was, I have to admit, a little disappointing.  I’ve been going there for the same two weeks for 12 years now, and this was without-a-doubt the worst two weeks I’ve ever experienced there.   The albies were virtually absent.  There were very few to no bass boils.  Seems like when they did start to come up, it was in small pods that didn’t stay up for longer than 10 seconds or so before an entire fleet of boats descended.  There were indeed stripers down deep on sand eels, some of which were quite large.  In fact we caught a handful of fish over 40-pounds, but it was, for the most part, jigging, down deep.  It certainly wasn’t the kind of fishing that makes Montauk, well… Montauk.

Why, who the H knows…  But the purpose of this blog is not to talk about Montauk, but to discuss weakfish.  Because, believe it or not, a bit west of the Point in 40 to 50’ depths, the bottom was often absolutely covered with them.  Not the 7’ to 10” spike fish that seemed to be abundant every Oct and haven’t yet recruited into the fishery, and likely wouldn’t recruit. These were nice fish in the 7 to 10-pound range.  We caught a bunch before the gillnets showed up anyway.

This sort of weakfish abundance isn’t restricted to Eastern Long Island.  I’ve actually got good numbers of weakfish minutes from my house in Oceanside.  Jamaica Bay has been full of them this summer.  And Cape Cod got a good slug of fish this spring and early summer.  In fact, if you look at the coastal fishing reports, it appears that weakfish catches were pretty good all over.  So…  What the hell?

I guess I should provide a little background here before moving forward.  Weakfish are really interesting to me.  When I first started guiding in 2000, in the spring we would catch just as many weakfish as we did stripers.  And if you recall, the bass fishing was pretty darn good back then, even though we didn’t have the extra-large fish we have now.  Still, in a 4-hour trip we’d consistently catch a dozen to two dozen schoolies with a few larger fish mixed in, and of course, every once in a while a really big fish.  And the weakfish were mixed in, in the same sort of numbers.  It was solid fishing on both fronts (note: remember this for a later point).  2001 to 2003 were just as good, but the weakfish just got larger.  Once we got into 2004 there were definitely fewer fish, but again, larger ones.

Then, in 2005 we saw a precipitous decline.  We caught a handful of very large fish, but certainly not in good numbers.  We couldn’t really target them, you’d just have to be lucky to come across one.  In 2006 we caught 4 weakfish the entire spring.  Every single one would have likely blown the IGFA weakfish fly category out of the water had I had a chance to take a girth measurement, but there was always an urgency to get those fish back in the water as soon as possible as we all knew we were witnessing a crash.  In 2007, we caught one fish, a fat 39-incher, probably close to the 20 pound mark.  I should also note here that the all-tackle record (a 19-pounder) was caught from the Jersey Shore in the spring of 2008.  The presence of small numbers of such large fish and no small or medium fish is a classic sign of an impending collapse, and, well, they collapsed.  Weakfish were in trouble then and, unsurprisingly, it got even worse before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) acted.

 

 

A 2009 stock assessment found that weakfish were badly depleted.  The stock had reached an all-time low of 2.9 million pounds, far below the “biomass threshold” of 22.4 million pounds, which is what scientists would consider a healthy stock.  This is an astonishing drop, since the East Coast harvest in 1980 was 80 million pounds.

One would think ASMFC would have shut the fishery down, but of course they didn’t.  Instead they gave anglers 1 fish per person and a 100 pound trip limit for commercial fishermen.  The argument was that this would allow for some data collection and some dead discards to be converted to catch.  Of course, this was one of the usual ASMFC excuses to allow people to continue to kill a badly depleted species.  Once you have such a “bycatch allowance” inevitably it results in a directed fishery, especially on the commercial side.

Moving on…  According to ASMFC biologists, the decline wasn’t due to fishing pressure.   Natural mortality had increased to a level between two to four times that of fishing mortality in recent years.  Surveys showed that juvenile weakfish populations continued to be strong (remember I mentioned all the spike weakfish we were catching in the fall) but that they were not making it to maturity.

Why?  There were all kinds of theories.  Perhaps the most irritating of which was that stripers were eating them all, or that stripers were eating all the forage.  Of course the people who wanted to be able to kill more stripers were pushing that argument.  But remember that I mentioned how abundant both striped bass and weakfish were from 2000 to 2004.  So in my mind the two species could most certainly coexist together in large numbers.  Sure, that’s just my anecdotal observation based on a very limited frame of reference, but here’s a hard example, dating farther back.  The explosion of weakfish in the early 1970s coincided with what was at the time the largest year class of striped bass ever recorded.  And since we’re on the issue of predation, the same sort of thing can be said in regards to bluefish.  Anglers harvested 95 million pounds of bluefish in 1981, and just 19 million pounds in 2008.  So weakfish were abundant when there were lots of bluefish around, and the stock crashed when bluefish numbers were low.  Explain that one to me. The point is, it’s very unlikely that stripers, or bluefish had anything to do with the weakfish crash.

A more palatable theory was that estuaries, which provide not only productive feeding areas, but spawning grounds for adult weakfish and important nursery areas for juveniles, were/are suffering from all sorts of negative influences, such as coastal development, point and nonpoint source pollution, dredging and filling, alteration of natural freshwater flow, treatment plants, power plant intakes… The list goes on.  Certainly, some if not all of these things likely contributed to the decline (along with fishing mortality of course) but given the fact that they are coming back now, I don’t believe that such degradation is the sole reason for the crash.

I think the species is just naturally cyclical.  When you look at the history, weakfish have experienced extreme highs and lows.  They virtually disappeared in the early 50s and showed no sign of recovery until 1972. The early 70s began a period of tremendous growth in the fishery, which peaked in 1980. Then the fishery declined steadily throughout the 1980s, dropping to a low in 1994.  Then the stock grew slowly through 2000. Then they began decline again, and by 2008, were reduced to historic lows.  And that’s pretty much where we’ve been ever since.

Such highs and lows are precisely why I think weakfish are very vulnerable.  During what appears to be a natural ebb, or perhaps more accurately, during a series of years where conditions are not favorable for recruitment (BTW, if you didn’t know already, “recruitment” is just a fancy word for young-fish-growing-up), we shouldn’t be pounding on them, if we want them to come back.  But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Circling back to the gillnets out in Montauk.  I can’t imagine they aren’t going through their 100-pounds of weakfish a day.  And without a doubt, given the concentration of fish there before the gillnetters I witnessed set their nets, I am pretty damn certain that way more than 100-pounds were caught in said gill net, which were either discarded dead – weakfish are not a resilient species, and are unlikely to survive being entangled in a gillnet – or taken illegally.  And since we’re on the subject of  gillnets, there were a bunch of gillnets in the water every single day I was out there, which were of course targeting striped bass.  Given all the stripers that converge on Montauk this time of the year, I can’t for the life of me understand how such fishermen don’t go through their allotted tags in a matter of days…  I could imagine they could burn through all of those tags in only one!  Even with tags traded/obtained by/from other commercial fishermen.  But I’m gonna resist the urge to get on that tangent.

So getting back to weakfish.  Yes, there appear to be a slug of fish around.  Good ones too.  It would have been great if ASMFC had done the right thing and simply stopped fishing on them when they were at historic lows.  Frankly, we still shouldn’t be fishing on them, even with a one fish bag limit.  And certainly we shouldn’t allow a 100-pound limit for commercial fishermen.  Weakfish are a tight schooling fish, very susceptible to large bycatch events, not just in gillnets but trawlers as well.  Instead of a 100-pound trip limit, a total bycatch cap would serve the stock much better.  In other words the gillnet fishery should be shut down when it’s been determined that a certain number of weakfish are caught/killed.  I mean for Christ’s sake, give this fish a chance to come back.  They could be a boon to the fishing industry, both recreational and commercial, if we gave them a chance to fully fill in.  Unfortunately, that’s not really how things work at ASMFC.

So…  Will we see this big body of weakfish next year, or in the subsequent years?  That’s of course anyone’s guess.  But given ASMFC management history, and what I’m seeing on the water, I’m not very confident we will.  I do hope I’m wrong.  These are some of the most beautiful fish in the sea, with so many shades of purple and pink.  And they eagerly take both flies and small jigs fished on light tackle.  Not to mention, it would be a boon to my business, particularly in light of the striped bass decline.  I’m keeping my figures cross, but experience has made me cynical.

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posted in: TRCP Marine

September 27, 2013

CCA MC Has It Right on Stripers

Photo courtesy of John McMurray

I’m in Montauk this week and next.  So being that I’ll be writing blogs in-between 8-plus-hour stints of chasing unusually sparse pods of albies and stripers, expect uncharacteristically brief pieces for these two weeks (unfortunately, as regular readers of this column have likely noticed, I don’t really have the gift of saying something meaningful in under 1000 words).

But, here goes…  Earlier this week, Tony Friedrich, CCA MD’s Executive Director, sent me their comments on the 2012 Benchmark Striped Bass Stock Assessment.  Yes, the benchmark was released a few weeks ago, but I’ve avoided writing about it because the 2012 numbers still need to be added (presumably that will happen in Oct), and because, well, I’ve been too darn busy fishing to read and digest the whole thing.  But getting back on point, Tony forced me to give it a look this week.   I think CCA MD pretty much has it right.  CCA MD Comments on 2013 Striped Bass Stock Assessment.

I will note here that it’s good to see that at least one CCA state still believes in one of the founding principles of that organization…  That is, the needs of the fish must come before the needs of any user group (I’m paraphrasing of course).  That doesn’t appear to apply to any of the CCA chapters down south right now, but that’s an entirely different blog.  I suspect this is an indication that the Mid Atlantic and New England CCA states will take a solid conservation position on striped bass.  Indeed that’s a good thing.

As I understand it, the old striped bass stock assessment was kind of a mishmash.  In assessing the appropriate fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass levels, it averaged out two “Ricker models” and two “statistical catch-at-age models”, and it came to a conclusion that was neither fish nor fowl (all pun intended).  The Ricker model for striped bass probably wasn’t appropriate in the first place.  I’m told that such models are generally used for species such as salmon, where overcrowding in limited nursery habitat actually reduces recruitment (not the case with a species like striped bass where there appears to be plenty of spawning habitat), and where a reduction in the population, within reason, leads to higher recruitment.  The Ricker Model is one of those things that gets hauled out every time someone wants to kill more fish (e.g. RFA was pushing it for fluke back around 2004 or 2005).Getting back to the stock assessment itself, as expected, it shows that stripers are not overfished, and overfishing still isn’t occurring.  Before you throw your hands up, let me explain.  This does not necessarily mean more of the same.  Clearly the stock is in trouble, and there is some acknowledgement of that in the assessment itself.  And I think even those managers prone to avoid any tough decisions are beginning to see the writing on the wall.

The new assessment is strictly “statistical catch-at-age”, and comes to the conclusion that you’d expect once the less appropriate model is off the table.  That is, the fishing mortality reference points are too high. The stock assessment concluded that we need to reduce fishing mortality pretty significantly if we are to avoid big problems in the future.  As mentioned, the final 2012 numbers will be added to the assessment at the October ASMFC meeting.  Until then, it is difficult to put a number on the percentage of reduction recommended.  But it will probably somewhere around 40 or 50%.  Which is entirely reasonable, and a worthwhile sacrifice if it will stop the decline and get the stock back to abundant levels.

Without any change in fishing mortality, overfishing is a virtual certainty in 2014, and there is an increased chance of an overfished stock by 2015/2016, although that begins to decline thereafter when that anomalous strong 2011 year class (amongst 8 years of average to below-average year classes) begins to recruit into the fishery.  That’s of course assuming that a significant number of 2011 fish do indeed recruit into the fishery.   Given the lack of much before or behind them, and the pressure they will likely face, I have my doubts.

As the CCA comments point out, there’s no doubt that reductions are needed.  Where the real doubt lies is whether ASMFC has sufficient guts or integrity to make such real and likely painful reductions.  If I had to make a guess, given the rumblings I’ve heard, I’d have to say that ASMFC will approve some sort of reduction in fishing mortality.  Yet, given the management body’s reluctance to make the real hard choices, and its constant proclivity to “meet half-way” (e.g. invoking half-measures), I’m not confident it will be the 50% reduction in F we really need.  Yet, as mentioned in other blogs.  I’m perpetually cynical, which is likely the result of being around this stuff too long.

Now might be a good time to contact your commissioners and ask them to reduce fishing mortality significantly, and to do it now!  So that we can stop what is so obviously a decline in what has become perhaps the most important fish to the Mid-Atlantic and New England recreational fishing community. Here’s the link to your Commissioner’s contact info:  ASMFC Commissioners.

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posted in: TRCP Marine

The F-word Again

Signing the reauthorization of the Magnusson Stevens Act in 2006 — Compliments of NatGeo

 

The penalty for using the F-word when growing up was worse than having to wash one’s mouth out with soap. It usually meant getting grounded for some period of time and that meant no fishing expeditions to local ponds and rivers. These trips were executed on bicycles outfitted with rod holders and tackle box containers. In those days, most did not get cars until well past the driver license age. Losing fishing privileges was a big penalty.

Today’s F-word and fisheries are far different. Some think that not believing in the F-word as it applies to fisheries should get a punishment far worse than oral soap or getting grounded. They think that if one is not for the F-word, then one is against recreational fishing and the industry it supports.

What is today’s F-word? Well, it is “flexibility” and seems to be the central concept being pushed for the current Re-authorization of the Magnusson Stevens Act (MSA), also know as the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), so named after its re-authorization in 2006. I am hoping that this reauthorization does not become the “Flexible Fisheries Act.”

What’s the problem with making fisheries more flexible to help accommodate the needs of the resource users. Nothing really. But do we need to make a change to do that? A lot of folks do not think so.

Last week, one of my fellow bloggers, Capt. John McMurray, wrote a good piece on the current efforts to Re-authorize the MSA/SFA, whichever you’d like to call it. He gave a good look at all the major issues. If you want a refresher give it a read. I am going to focus in on one issue that continues to give me heartburn. This issue is also getting some traction after a recent report was released by the National Research Council, which is an arm of the US National Academy of Sciences. Several former members of Congress requested the report. I cannot criticize the report as I have felt that the arbitrary re-building timeline mandated in MSA was just that. Arbitrary. But the mandated timeline does hold managers feet to the fire as well as tying their hands on some species.

The report does say that the existing law works. It noted that a good percentage of the stocks examined were now rebuilt or rebuilding. This is all good news. What the report points out is that current science capability is not good enough to precisely manage to a specified biomass level. Given that constraining element, they suggested that managing to a mortality level rather than an arbitrary timeline “might” be a better way to go. Note they said “might” not “would be.” From a managers standpoint, managing to a mortality level is very attractive because it is fairly straight forward. Set it and forget it!

In a discussion with John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance, he made a very good observation about this report. “This report is an intellectual debate that will unfortunately be used to inform a policy decision.” Spot on.

With some of the problematic stocks, the allowed mortality (landings + discards + natural mortality) would be set at a low level with no rebuilding timeline. That may work for the commercial industry as it avoids the huge swings in quota currently being experienced and gives some level of stability. I doubt that it will be much help to the struggling groundfish industry in New England.

However, my strong sense is that this type of management strategy will absolutely cream the recreational users that share resources with the commercial users. What drives the recreational industry? Fishing trips. What drives fishing trips? Abundance of fish. This has been proven time and again. People want to catch fish and since recreational users have the least efficient gear, they need lots of fish. Keeping them at low levels until the stars align to cause a lot of high recruitment events will not help the recreational industry. I think that a lot of the push from the recreational industry for the F-word is due to one or two specific fisheries. Ya, ya, red snapper is one. There may be other ways to address these specific fisheries and it appears that the Gulf is working on one.

I do not think that there needs to be a complete remake of MSA to solve some specific issues. Rick Methot, Chief assessment Scientist for NOAA Fisheries supported that idea, “the agency is investigating how it can revise its national management guidelines to provide more flexibility, while still preventing overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks. We are interested in finding the right balance of flexibility and firmness.”

If there are ways to improve MSA that make the managers jobs simpler and more effective, I am all for it. However, allowing stocks to remain at low levels for prolonged periods will do nothing to rebuild and sustain the recreational fishing industry. I’m pretty sure of that.

 

For More Information

  1. The Bottom Line
  2. Report shows gains in many fish stocks

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posted in: TRCP Marine

September 20, 2013

If It Ain’t Broke…

A recent NRC report on rebuilding fisheries is right about some things, but if history is any indication, it’s wrong on others

 

DSC_0046a

Back in 1996, Congress enacted the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), which rightly requires fishery managers to rebuild overfished stocks in a time period that is “as short as possible,” generally not to exceed 10 years (except in cases where the biology of the stock, other environmental conditions or international agreements dictate otherwise).  By all means, reasonable to most anglers who want to enjoy such rebuilt/abundant fisheries… in our lifetimes.

Congress, with what appeared to be overwhelming support of the American people, reaffirmed the need to rebuild stocks promptly when it reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006, upholding the “as short as possible,” timeframe, but also explicitly directing fishery management councils to heed the advice of independent scientists on their Science and Statistical Committees regarding biologically-based maximum fishing levels.  This provision essentially isolated Council decisions from political pressure to do the wrong thing, as the scientists would be the ones setting the maximum harvest levels.  Congress, as well as conservation-minded angling groups, understood that such a provision was necessary to alter the cultural predisposition of regional fisheries management councils to discount scientific recommendations if there might be some short-term economic pain for their constituencies.

In addition, the Magnuson reauthorization required firm catch limits and accountability measures be established to ensure that such fisheries were indeed rebuilt.  In short, the 2006 Reauthorization gave fishery management law real teeth and thus far it appears to be working.  Rebuilding for the majority of federally managed species is either done, or getting done.

Unsurprisingly, the resulting fishing restrictions have caused some economic pain, suffered not only by the commercial fishing industry, but the recreational sector also, as seasons and bag limits shrink and stocks recover from decades of overfishing.   A slow economy probably hasn’t helped the situation.

Responding to concern about such economic and social impacts in their states, and, well, a chorus of disgruntled fishermen who want to be able to kill more fish than the current law allows, members of Congress recently requested that NOAA fund a National Research Council (NRC) assessment of the rebuilding plans and their associated ecological and economic effects.  Most of what they found generally wasn’t surprising.  From the document:

  • The current rebuilding approach has “resulted in demonstrated successes in identifying and rebuilding overfished stocks.”
  • “fishing mortality has generally been reduced, and stock biomass has generally increased, for stocks that were placed in a rebuilding plan.”
  • “the long-term net economic benefits” have been “positive.”
  • “the legal and prescriptive nature of rebuilding mandates forces difficult decisions to be made, ensures a relatively high level of accountability, and can help prevent protracted debate over whether and how stocks should be rebuilt.”
  • “setting rebuilding times is useful for specifying target fishing mortality rates for rebuilding and for avoiding delays in initiating rebuilding plans.”

Yet, even as the NRC Report confirms the well-documented and unprecedented success in rebuilding fisheries, it strangely enough suggests that policymakers consider policy changes that could very quickly undermine that success, most notably the elimination of mandatory deadlines and rebuilding targets set forth in the 1996 SFA.   Although it doesn’t explicitly call for a change in the law itself, the report does appear to recommend reversing course on the strict deadlines and rebuilding targets that repeatedly and successfully rebuilt depleted fish populations.  I do understand the reasoning, but I think there’s a huge lack of perspective here.

First, the report points out that, given the many environmental factors that can affect population size in addition to fishing,  there is considerable uncertainty about how fast fish populations will grow.  For example, climate change and other ecological factors can certainly drive changes in fish stocks.  Thus, the report argues,  rebuilding fish populations within a certain timeframe cannot be assured.

That may be the case, but there are a couple of key points here that the report ignores.  One is that we have no control over natural mortality that comes with such environmental and ecological factors.  And, well, natural mortality plus fishing mortality equals total mortality.  While we can’t control that other stuff, we can control fishing mortality.  Whether we can control fishing mortality enough to allow a stock to rebuild within a time certain, in light of the above mentioned natural factors, is indeed a relevant question.  But the fact that the majority of federally managed stocks have rebuilt or are rebuilding within the prescribed time frames strongly suggests we can.  Sure, there are some that haven’t, but the current law allows consideration of such natural factors in those fisheries when setting rebuilding timelines.  As I said, above, the law stipulates rebuilding “in as short as time as possible”, which in most cases is 10 years “except in cases where the biology of the stock, other environmental conditions” dictates otherwise.  So, such non-controllable factors are actually already addressed under current law.

The report goes on to identify strategies for accommodating  uncertainties which could lessen short-term economic and social impacts. For one, it recommends taking earlier action to avoid overfishing by imposing prompt but gradual limits on fishing when fish populations start to drop rather than waiting until they are overfished.  No argument here.  This strategy could help managers avoid the stricter limits that come with rebuilding badly depleted stocks.  The ASMFC should certainly take note of this one (e.g. striped bass).

Yet the report also recommends basing rebuilding plans on monitoring and controlling fishing levels, rather than on requiring that fish populations recover to a pre-specified target size within a certain timeframe, arguing that this strategy might be less disruptive.  In other words, if managers could keep fishing at a reduced but constant level for a longer period of time, they could rebuild fish stocks while allowing higher harvest levels.

Of course, that seems obvious right?  Why not let people kill more fish while the stock is recovering, and just let that recovery take longer?  But what does “longer” mean?  Instead of 10 years, 20 years?  Or 40 years!?  Don’t know about you guys but I want to see fish stocks rebuild in my lifetime.  Fish are a publicly owned natural resource, and should be managed for the benefit of everyone.  Seriously, why should I have to lose charter business because the resource-extractive sectors want to kill more fluke and drive the stock down to levels where they aren’t available to me?  Regardless, aside from those questions, the suggestion disregards the last 30 years of fisheries management history.

Prior to 1996 (when SFA was passed), managers were able to put off rebuilding in the name of minimizing economic impacts, and the result was, well,  it was chronic overfishing.  It doesn’t take a, brain surgeon, or, ehm, a fisheries scientist to figure that one out. The longer the rebuilding period, the longer managers, under extreme pressure from their constituents and politicians, put off rebuilding as most federally managed stocks bounced along at a low level.  This hurt everyone in those fisheries, but particularly anglers.  Commercial fishermen, at least the good ones, could always find fish to scoop up via net.  But anglers, using the least efficient gear and having the least range, and who really depend on abundance, were stuck busting their rear-ends to find a 14” fluke.  Even after SFA was enacted, NOAA Fisheries and the Councils had to be sued before they would institute rebuilding plans that had any real chance of success.

Such reluctance to act also demonstrates the hazard inherent in the previously mentioned “environmental factors beyond our control” language.  If managers can shirk their responsibilities by claiming that the condition of an overfished stock is beyond their control because of environmental conditions, it’s very likely that they will find countless excuses that “justify” rebuilding failures.  Fishermen are notorious for placing blame for declining stocks on predation, development, pollution, climate change—anything but fishing.  While these factors are certainly relevant, they do not justify continued overfishing.  When fish populations face stress from environmental factors, it doesn’t make sense to continue to catch them faster than they can reproduce, yet fishermen routinely point to such problems, and try to use them as excuses for overfishing collapsed stocks.  Southern New England winter flounder is a darn good example of that.

My overarching point is this: without  firm deadlines and rebuilding goals, managers don’t have the balls to rebuild.  Speaking from  a Manager’s perspective (I sit on the Mid Atlantic Council), I absolutely understand this.  It’s  really freak’n hard to make the difficult but necessary decisions that will cause substantial short-term pain, but are needed to ensure long term sustainability.  It’s particularly tough when your constituency and in some cases politicians are crying for more fish.  The sort of “flexibility” the NRC report seems to be endorsing will give the Councils ample reason to avoid making those tough decisions and to perpetually put off rebuilding.

Advocates of flexibility will continue to say that a 10-year rebuilding requirement is “arbitrary” and not science-based even when such deadlines are endorsed by scientists and, in fact, are actually being met!  And I suppose in the strictest sense, 10 years could be considered arbitrary.  But so is any deadline.  20 years is just as “arbitrary” as 10.  Perhaps I’ve become too cynical, but I have to think that Council members, seeking to placate their constituents, would be unlikely to work any harder to recover a stock in 20 or 30 years than in 10.   And even after that, there’s no reason to believe managers would get serious about rebuilding and wouldn’t only ask for more flexibility down the road.  I have to believe that it would be nearly impossible to implement any finite time frames in any rebuilding plan if we were to take the report’s suggestion seriously.  In truth, “flexibility,” is merely a euphemism for “delay”, and building more “flexibility” into the management system would merely allow managers to avoid the obligation to recover fish populations, and lawsuits resulting from their failure to do so

I talked about this pretty extensively in my first blog.  But I’m gonna hammer it home again, because it needs to be said over and over again.  The firm rebuilding goals and timelines are working.  So much so that I’ve created a “summer doldrums” business for summer flounder (fluke) for my light-tackle clients.  Fluke, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth (e.g. “it can’t be done”, “we’ll all go out of business”) was rebuilt to a level where we are pretty much all benefiting now!  According to NOAA Fisheries summer flounder recreational landings were up 700% from 1989 to 2011 when the stock was rebuilt!

I certainly understand that the situation down south is quite a bit different, and I’m the first one to admit that I’m not an expert on red snapper.  But I do know that one of the defining aspects of that rebuilding plan is that red snapper is much longer-lived and slower growing than a species like summer flounder (or bluefish, black seabass or scup for that matter), and the pain that comes with such rebuilding will likely last a lot longer.  I also understand there are data problems.  But I have to say that the complaints from snapper fishermen sound very similar to what we were hearing from the summer flounder crowd about 6 years ago.  Regardless, to blow up an entire management system, which the conservation minded angling community worked so hard to get in place, and which, overall, appears to be benefiting anglers (who of course rely on abundant fisheries) is pretty damn stupid and short-sighted, especially considering the fact that the vast majority of anglers don’t even really target red snapper.

It’s pretty clear to me that, overall, science-based goals and firm deadlines serve the general public well, even if a few business interests may have to suffer temporarily.  The case of summer flounder makes that clear.  Today, the average Joe can go out into the Bay with his kids with the reasonable expectation of catching a few keeper fluke.  That simply wasn’t the case just a few years ago.

But back to the NRC report…  I didn’t find its criticism of the use of timelines and rebuilding goals  to be balanced or compelling. It acknowledged, but then dismissed, their efficacy  to date, and the criticism was based on theory rather than real-world experience.   While there have certainly been and continue to be problems with the rebuilding programs, I’m pretty sure they are just “growing pains” which, assuming we leave Magnuson intact, will probably abate as the process continues to mature.  With any real world regulatory programs there is always “messiness” in the beginning.   And really, such problems are being addressed by the Councils within the constraints of the current law which already offers sufficient flexibility.  Furthermore, the report failed to coherently and specifically provide an alternative approach, let alone demonstrate that such an approach would have produced superior (or even similar) results.

But where does it leave us?  I’m afraid not in a very good place.  The NRC report, despite clearly recognizing that the rebuilding timelines and goals are working, is quickly becoming “Exhibit A” for the same “more-fish-for-me” crowd that has been working so hard to tear the heart out of the Magnuson Act’s provisions since 1996.  The very provisions that have allowed extraordinary recoveries such as summer flounder to occur.

Perhaps it’s an Irish trait to always have a half-empty glass, but I have a somewhat bleak outlook on the next Magnuson Reauthorization.  The good guys no longer appear to be the good guys, and the public is so darn anti-government/anti-regulation right now.  And then there’s freak’n red snapper, which very few anglers even target, but that stupid fish seems to be driving the debate.  Perhaps most importantly, we don’t have strong leadership on fisheries on the Hill anymore (e.g. Stevenson and, well George W., who was actually quite good).  On the other hand, Congress is so dysfunctional, it’s entirely possible this doesn’t move at all.  Pretty pathetic, but really, that may be a saving grace.   (Note:  my “copy editor” calls this paragraph “needless whiny pessimism that isn’t helping anything.”  I don’t disagree).

Congress is already holding hearings on the Magnuson Stevenson Act Reauthorization.  I actually testified in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard in July.  You can find the archived testimony here.  Note that my testimony begins at 1:29.  Yet a more recent hearing in the House had a completely different tone: a bunch of guys referencing the NRC’s suggestion for flexibility in rebuilding timelines and goals.  Congress needs to keep hearing from anglers and small business owners like me (and you!) who have and continue to benefit from rebuilt stocks, and not just from the more-fish-for-me crowd who’s new rallying cry around the NRC report is “we told you so”.

Well, the facts show that “WE told you so”.  Nearly two-thirds of the stocks put in rebuilding plans since 1996 have either rebuilt to healthy population levels, or have made significant rebuilding progress. This rebuilding success was responsible for an increase in estimated gross commercial revenues of $585 million—92 percent higher (54 percent when adjusted for inflation) than revenues at the start of rebuilding.  That is incredibly significant.

It would be unwise to go back to a policy that seemed to have so obviously failed our fisheries, our fishermen and the general public.  But that’s exactly where we’re headed if we don’t make our voices heard and exercise our right to influence the direction of fisheries policy.  As we get down to reauthorization time (when that might be is really anyone’s guess right now), we have to let Congress know that this is not what we want.  Stay tuned and I’ll let you know how we can do that.

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