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February 19, 2014

More striped bass catch-and-release a good idea?

Striped bass close-up.
Striped bass. Photo Courtesy of John McMurray.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will remember that two weeks ago, I wrote about a recent suggestion by some that we open up the exclusive economic zone, or “EEZ” to striped bass fishing so that anglers in Virginia and North Carolina could have access to the large bodies of big fish that have been found to winter offshore there. It may be a good idea to read that blog before continuing:  OF STRIPED BASS, THE EEZ AND THE SAME OLD (EXPLETIVE)

In short, the EEZ is that area of the ocean outside of 3 miles, or what our government considers federal waters. Everything outside of that, up to 200 miles, is off limits to striper fishing. It has been for 25 years. Such a closure was put in place to protect the spawning stock back when things got really bad for striped bass. Since then, it has served as a critical buffer for the species and really the only place the fish don’t get absolutely hammered – at least, not legally.

To understand how critical the EEZ closure is, consider that just last week, on a joint NCDMF/USFWS tagging survey, five people with hook and line gear tagged a total of 274 stripers fishing 24 miles off the North Carolina coast. Included was one 74-pound striper, reportedly 10 or so fish exceeding 50 pounds, and too many 30s and 40s to count. Such large concentrations of big adult fish do indeed occur offshore and currently are not accessible to fishermen. Given the striped bass’ decline, these are exactly the fish we should be protecting, and while there are some enforcement hiccups, we are indeed protecting them. That is unquestionably a good thing.

The EEZ should remain closed. There is absolutely no reason to open it. Certainly, I got some feedback from those who disagree, and while I understand the rationale I think it’s based on a false premise. Their argument is that so much illegal fishing occurs in the EEZ that reducing the bag limit from two to one fish and allowing folks to fish in the EEZ would actually reduce fishing mortality. In other words, instead of killing two fish illegally, they’d be killing one legally. I think that’s bullshit, though. For one, the Coast Guard has actually been really good on the enforcement stuff in the last couple of years. Sure, some illegal targeting of striped bass probably takes place, but from what I’m hearing, it’s not near as significant as it was a few years ago. Like I said in my last EEZ piece, an increasingly sophisticated Coast Guard and serious fines have made most realize that it just isn’t worth it. Frankly, I kinda think the guys using the reduced fishing mortality argument are really just throwing it out there, because they are simply interested in getting on those large concentrations of wintering fish.

So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, the point of this week’s blog is to take a look at what opening up the EEZ to just catch-and-release fishing would mean. And I bring this up now, because at the last Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meeting the Striped Bass Board discussed the potential of such an opening, which confused me a little bit, because… well, because catch-and-release fishing already exists in the EEZ.

Technically, it’s not legal to fish for them. The language in the regulation is pretty clear on that point. But it really appears to be an unenforceable regulation, as the angler isn’t retaining the evidence. So, one could just claim he/she was targeting another species. That said, the scuttlebutt is that some perhaps overly ambitious boarding officers have been boarding vessels and writing tickets for people fishing in areas of the EEZ where there doesn’t appear to be anything but striped bass. Or maybe it was that they were just writing warnings. I don’t know. Either way, this is the first I’ve heard of any such enforcement action for catch-and-release fishing in the EEZ.

As I referenced in the last EEZ blog, there are lots of businesses in both Virginia and North Carolina that simply don’t have much business anymore, because, for one, there’s real enforcement of the EEZ closure now, but also because the stock has contracted to the point where the inshore/legal striper fishery in the winter is virtually non-existent. So, making it legal to go out and target some of these large wintering fish in the EEZ might indeed help these guys out. I mean, the point is that these guys could advertise such a fishery. Get guys to drive down from Jersey, etc. to get in on it. So from that perspective I do get it. And this is precisely why the subject was brought up at ASMFC.

Close big bass.
Big striped bass. Photo courtesy of John McMurray.

On the surface it sounds pretty harmless, right? What could be wrong with such a policy? And why wouldn’t we all want this? Seems like a win/win. But I think we have to be very careful. If this was 2006 and we were at peak abundance, I’d probably be inclined to think, yeah, this a good idea – and probably harmless. But we aren’t there anymore. In fact we’re in the midst of a pretty precipitous decline, and it’s very possible that we’ll be over the fishing mortality threshold (read overfishing) and the stock will have fallen below the spawning stock biomass threshold (read overfished) by the end of this year.

With that in mind, we have to understand that even with an all-release fishery, there will be some release/discard mortality. I’m pretty sure 8 percent is the number the assessment uses. That may not sound significant, but extrapolated over all those fish that are caught and released (remember the 274 stripers caught in the tagging survey by one boat with only five anglers on board) you’ve definitely got an increase in fishing mortality. And we’ve also got to remember that these are pretty much all old, large fish – the ones where the real release mortality rate is generally much higher than 8 percent.

The other thing that concerns me about making such a catch-and-release fishery “legal” is that I suspect it will invite non-compliance. The big fleets of boats outside of the 3 mile limit used to send up red flags. That won’t be the case if there’s a “legal” fishery out there, which is fine, assuming everyone is in compliance, prosecuting a strictly catch-and-release fishery… I doubt that will be the case. There will likely be a significant number of knuckleheads hiding fish in compartments.

Yeah, I don’t really know where I’m at on this right now. Really, I don’t think this stock needs any increase in fishing mortality right now, even if it’s incremental. On the other hand, I intuitively think, “So what, it’s catch-and-release… there won’t be that much mortality, and people are doing it anyway” (of course it will be on a much larger scale now though). But that’s just a gut feeling, and my gut is often wrong. The logical part of me thinks this is a bad idea, at least right now. I guess for me to really make up my mind, I’d have to see a full analysis by the Striped Bass Technical Committee, but I suspect such an analysis would be less than comprehensive. Often such analyses don’t take into account noncompliance, not to mention all the boneheads who don’t know how to – or simply don’t take the time or expend the energy to – properly release a big fish. In other words, I suspect the Technical Committee would just apply the 8 percent release mortality rate across the board. And I believe, particularly with the large fish we’re talking about here, that it is much higher.

Striped bass with angler.
Photo courtesy of John McMurray.

Where are we now with all of this? As mentioned, the initial, albeit abbreviated discussion has taken place at ASMFC. If I understood that conversation correctly, commissioners need more info/analysis from the Technical Committee, and they also wanted to hear from the Advisory Panel (I look forward to weighing in here!). I should note here though that that ASMFC in itself cannot reopen the EEZ. It can recommend only that the feds (NOAA Fisheries) open the area again. Of course, given the processes for making such public decisions, the feds would have to offer significant justification to reopen the EEZ, there would have to be scoping, public hearings, etc. So I certainly don’t think that this is something that’s right around the corner. That said, I do know that the Coast Guard already has had some preliminary discussions on how they might enforce such an all-release fishery.

Moving forward, I guess we’ll see how this all shakes out. Stay tuned! I’ll be sure to be reporting on this as we get more information.

 

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February 18, 2014

A fair shake for saltwater recreational anglers

Mike Nussman of the American Sportfishing Association With Gumballs.
Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association, demonstrates the allocation of saltwater fish caught by commercial fishermen in his right hand and recreational anglers in his left hand. Photo by Richard Gibson/Hi-Seas Photography.

The problem with federal fisheries management in coastal waters is that nearly everything is based on commercial fishing. How much of a particular species can be caught, when they can be caught and who can catch them leans heavily toward commercial fishermen. Recreational saltwater anglers get left holding the chum bag.

Mike Nussman, the president of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), explained the problem during a news conference last week at the Miami International Boat Show using gumballs. In one hand, he held a glass pitcher filled with gumballs, which represented the total amount of saltwater fish caught by commercial fishermen. In the other hand, he held a pitcher with two gumballs. That represented the total number of saltwater fish caught by recreational anglers.

Mike Nussman catch value
Mike Nussman illustrates the economic value of recreational fishing in the U.S. with the gumballs in the pitcher in his left hand compared to the value of commercial fishing in the pitcher in his right hand. Photo by Steve Waters.

Then he poured gumballs from the first pitcher into the second pitcher to represent the economic value of those catches. The second, recreational pitcher had more gumballs than the first, which illustrated just how much more valuable recreational fishing is to the U.S. economy than commercial fishing.

Nussman is one of many who believes it is time that federal fishery managers take into account the value of recreational fishing when managing saltwater fisheries. “Why does the National Marine Fisheries Service pay so little attention to recreational fishing?” Nussman asked during the news conference on the findings of the Commission for Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management.

As the commission’s report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” noted, the nation’s 11 million recreational saltwater anglers spent $27 billion in 2011 on fishing tackle, equipment and trip-related goods such as bait, ice, gas, meals and lodging. That generated more than $70 billion in economic output and supported 455,000 jobs. Commercial fishing supported 381,000 jobs. But there were 210 jobs for every 100,000 pounds of fish landed by recreational anglers, compared with only 4.5 jobs in the commercial fishing industry for that amount of fish.

Those are impressive numbers, but they are ignored by federal fishery managers and congressmen, who tend to think only of the bottom lines of commercial fishermen. The goal of the commission, which was chaired by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Scott Deal of Maverick Boats, and organizations such as the ASA, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Center for Coastal Conservation and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, is to have those numbers count when managing saltwater fisheries.

Specifically, “The commission envisions a marine fisheries management system that conserves fishery resources, provides consistency in regulations, and produces the full range of saltwater recreational fishing’s economic, social and conservation benefits for the nation.” To achieve that, the commission came up with six key elements that should be included when the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act is reauthorized by Congress:

  • Establishing a national policy for recreational fishing, much like individual states, such as Florida, which has effective size limits, bag limits and, in some cases, seasons to protect gamefish. Magnuson-Stevens currently only focuses on catch-and-release practices for recreational anglers.
  • Adopting a revised approach to recreational saltwater fisheries management that promotes conservation and access. Instead of managing recreational fisheries for maximum sustainable yield like commercial fisheries, manage them by harvest rate instead, which is how recreational fishing for striped bass is managed.
  • Allocation of marine fisheries for the greatest benefit to the nation. Species targeted by both commercial and recreational anglers, such as red snapper, need to be managed based on accurate data, conservation and socioeconomic value.
  • Creating reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines. Magnuson-Stevens says the time to rebuild stocks should be no more than 10 years, which for some species, is not realistic. Flexibility is needed, such as low harvest rates so stocks can grow and anglers still can fish.
  • Establishing a process for cooperative management, which means the feds should work closely with states to best manage specific fisheries.
  • Managing for the forage base. The feds seldom manage the bottom of the food chain, which is essential for healthy fisheries.

“Magnuson-Stevens hasn’t changed since 1976,” when it was enacted, said Jeff Angers, the president of the Center for Coastal Conservation. “Every amendment and reauthorization has focused on commercial fishing.”

Now it’s up to conservation and fishing organizations and individuals to get the message out to Congress that the value of recreational fishing must be considered when reauthorizing Magnuson-Stevens.

“It’s a time for all of us to unite,” Morris said, “and speak to our policy makers.”

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December 12, 2013

Big Swordfish, Tiny Boat

 

Here’s a fascinating fish story that’s clearly a case of don’t try this at your home port, but appreciate the skill involved.

Three anglers went about 18 miles offshore out of Pompano Beach, Fla., last week in a 19-foot skiff and came back with a 300-pound swordfish.

Daytime swordfishing, where anglers drop a bait to the bottom in 1,500-2,000 feet of water, is big in South Florida with recreational and commercial anglers.

Capt. Stan Hunt offers swordfish charters, as well as nearshore trips for sailfish, tuna, wahoo, kingfish and dolphin, on his 52-foot sportfisherman Rebound out of Hillsboro Inlet Marina.

With calm seas and no charter, Hunt and his mate Tom Bardes decided to try to catch a daytime swordfish in Hunt’s 19-foot Carolina Skiff, a boat that Hunt typically uses to fish for snook at night in the Intracoastal Waterway. At the last minute they were joined by Ryan Goldman, who works on charter and private boats.

They left Hillsboro Inlet at 5:30 a.m. and ran southeast for about 90 minutes in the 70-horsepower outboard-powered skiff, until they were 17-18 miles offshore and in the midst of the daytime swordfish fleet.

“We knew it was going to be nice,” Hunt said. “There was like a 2-, 3-foot rolling swell. It was beautiful out there.”

The trio made several drops to the bottom in 1,550-1,800 feet using dolphin bellies, snakeheads, squid and ribbonfish for bait. A swordfish whacked the bait on the second drop, but didn’t come back.

After two more drops, Bardes predicted that they’d get a bite at 2 p.m. At 1:45, the swordfish ate a large bonito strip in 1,750 feet.

Hunt and a friend had outfitted his boat for swordfishing by building a rod-holder with extra-strong support into the hatch in the boat’s seat. Goldman fought the fish on an LP electric reel spooled with 80-pound Diamond Braid line.

After the swordfish took off with the bait, it swam almost straight up to the boat. Goldman had the reel going as fast as it could and Hunt had the boat going backwards to keep tension on the line.

In less than 10 minutes, Goldman had about half of the leader on the reel and Hunt was able to remove the 10-pound lead weight from it and get a good look at the fish.

“We knew he was over 200,” Hunt said. “At that point he went down about 1,500 feet and started fighting like no other. It was intense.

“He had us doing 360s around him, following him, trying to get on him. He had us going inshore and offshore. He never jumped. He was a nasty fish.”

After about an hour, Goldman had the fish within 10 feet of the boat and about eight feet down. Bardes harpooned the fish, then the men had to figure out how to get the swordfish, which was bashing the boat with its bill, in the boat without tipping over.

“He was pretty hefty,” Hunt said. “With us three standing on the side of the boat and pulling him over, the rails were touching the water.”

Commercial swordfisherman Matt Gill came over to photograph the catch, then Hunt, Bardes and Goldman, who were then off Fort Lauderdale, made a few more drops, with no bites, before heading home with the fish, which Hunt cut up and gave to a number of his friends.

Fishing on other boats, Hunt had caught a 578-pound swordfish on rod and reel and a 483-pounder on an electric reel, but this fish was every bit as memorable.

“For us guys who have caught hundreds and hundreds of swordfish in bigger boats, it’s fun to catch a 50-pounder [in a boat that size],” said Hunt, who had previously caught swordfish from a small center console that he owned. “That was actually the first fish on that little boat and on my new sword rod.”

Asked if he ever felt that he and Bardes and Goldman were in danger during the trip, Hunt said, “Not one bit. Being in that boat especially, that thing is unsinkable.

“It was flat calm seas and we’re all very experienced. Being in danger never crossed my mind, until that bill was whacking the side of the boat.”

 

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December 6, 2013

NUTS AND BOLTS… WHY NEW YORK GETS SCREWED

Summer Flounder state allocations are ridiculous, it’s time we address this

I’ve written about summer flounder here and elsewhere on more than one occasion, mostly as a management success story.  The species really is a good example of how fisheries management law can work if given a chance.  The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Mid Atlantic Council got sued back in 1999 over summer flounder, essentially forcing them to rebuild the stock.  And while there were some tough regulations, and much whining and gnashing of teeth during the recovery, we did indeed rebuild… to historical levels.  Without a doubt, we’re enjoying the benefits.  The stock is entirely different than it used to be.  There is an abundance of older, larger fish around.  So much so that it’s become a significant part of my “light-tackle” business.  Indeed that’s a good thing.

It’s not surprising that such a rebuilt stock looks quite a bit different than the badly overfished, truncated one did.  Not only are there more, older larger fish around, the stock seems to have expanded north and east.  Anglers have been noting such a shift for several years, and now the science is proving that this is indeed the case.  Recent research by Dave E. Richardson, et.al., has shown that the geographic distribution of the stock is unquestionably different than it was a decade ago.  According to the new science, the bulk of the population now appears to occur off Northern New Jersey, the south shore of Long Island and Rhode Island, where as ten years ago the bulk of fish appeared to be off of southern New Jersey.  Of course there are different theories on why this is the case.  Climate change is a likely culprit as similar patterns have been observed in other species in the Northeast US, but it’s intuitive that when a stock rebuilds after decades of overfishing, it expands and the dynamics of that stock will change.

Summer flounder is a jointly managed stock, with responsibility shared between the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which addresses fisheries in federal waters, and the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC), which generally manages the inshore fishery.  Before 1999, summer flounder were managed on a coast-wide basis.  In other words, there was a single size and bag limit for all anglers, wherever they might happen to fish.  But the abundance and average size of the fluke wasn’t the same in every state, so some of the states argued that the one-size-fits-all system wasn’t fair.  States with modest harvests objected to their anglers being penalized for another state’s overfishing in the prior year.

So, through an addendum, it was decided that states would get a percentage of the total quota based on their alleged share of the catch in a single “baseline” year, 1998, which was chosen because it was the last year in which every state fished under identical regulations.   According to that single year of MRFSS (Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey) data, New York received about 17.5% of the overall harvest.  New Jersey got the lion’s share, a little under 40% – understandable, because that’s really where the center of the stock was back then.  Virginia’s allocation is about one percent less than New York’s.  All of the other states are minor players, with shares ranging from 2.95% in Maryland to 5.66% in Rhode Island.  From 2003 to 2013 each state has been adopting regulations based on that percentage of the overall quota that would theoretically keep its harvest within its historical share.  This is called “conservation equivalency.”

Because of the now well-documented geographic shift in the summer flounder population, today there are more fluke swimming off New York’s coast, and fewer off New Jersey’s.  But the current allocations don’t reflect that.    As a result, for many years, New York had the most restrictive regulations on the coast, yet still overfished its allocation by a significant amount, while New Jersey, which often had the most liberal rules, couldn’t catch its entire allotment.  Although that situation has changed in the past couple of years—New Jersey has relaxed its regulations enough that it is overfishing once again—New York’s rules remain the most restrictive, despite the increased number of fluke swimming off its shores, while New Jersey’s remain lax; even though it has fewer fish off its coast.  Jersey has been allocated such a large share of the summer flounder resource that it need not impose strict size and bag limits to stay within quota.  So New Jersey anglers end up with a much smaller size limit (often two inches below New York’s!) and a larger bag limit.  As regular readers of this column know, I’m all for constraining harvest to avoid overfishing, but this situation, besides being illogical, ends up being really unfair to New York’s anglers and angling related business.

I often find myself in the ridiculous situation where I’m fishing the New York side of Ambrose Channel in Lower New York Harbor and I’m tossing back dozens of 18” fish to get my 4 fish at 19”.  But 50’ to the west of me on the New Jersey side some guy is throwing those same 18” fish in his cooler (Jersey regs were five fish at 17.5” last year).  Similar boundaries—and regulatory disparities–exist between New York and Connecticut in Long Island Sound, New Jersey and Delaware in Delaware Bay, and Maryland and Virginia in the Chesapeake.  Not only is this sort of thing just stupid, it creates confusion and non-compliance.  For the enforcement guys its nightmare.  And it makes no sense because, despite the differing regulations, WE’RE ALL FISHING ON THE SAME STOCK OF SUMMER FLOUNDER!

Perhaps more important than all of this is the science.  It’s become a chorus amongst anglers, the recreational fishing industry, managers and the scientists themselves that we need better science in order to properly manage our fisheries.  Yet, under the state-by-state/conservation equivalency system we’re using a survey/data-collection system that never was intended to be used on a state scale.  The precision of such surveys (The Marine Recreational Fishing Statics Survey –MRFSS, and now Marine Recreational Information Program-MRIP) are simply not adequate to manage state-by-state quotas, nor have they performed well in that respect.   We have been told again and again that the larger the area, the larger the sample, the more precision with such surveys.  So from a science perspective, state-by-state allocation simply doesn’t work.

Recreational catch surveys have been widely criticized by the angling community for as long as I can remember; that criticism has been justified in some cases, and probably not justified in others, but it is absolutely justified here.  I always find it interesting that when such surveys indicate that a reduction in fishing mortality is needed, there are those who say that the surveys are “fatally flawed.” Yet when a state wants to hold on to its unjust summer flounder allocation, which is based on just a single year of MRFSS data, the same people argue that such allocation is completely justified by the data.  Hard to miss the hypocrisy here.

Yes, New York did actually support the state-by-state allocation system when it was hatched.  It voted for the 1998 baseline, because it believed at the time that this system would result in an equitable distribution of fishing opportunity among the states, while assuring that conservation measures needed to rebuild the summer flounder stock could be imposed.  But New York state officials also believed that allocation decisions could be revisited in the future.  Believe me, since the real-world consequences of “conservation equivalency” became known, New York has been aggressively seeking reconsideration of that allocation.  But the states that ultimately benefited from such an allocation (read New Jersey) have not allowed that to happen, even in the face of hard science indicating the practicality of revisiting such allocations.

What’s the real solution here?  When you take state politics out of the equation, from purely a science and management perspective, the reasonable thing to do would be to nix state-by-state/conservation equivalency entirely, and go back to coast-wide management for at least three years.  In other words, have the states fish under the same regulations for a significant amount of time so that we can get the catch data that would give us a much clearer picture of what the fishery really looks like today, not what it looked like 15 years ago.  That data would give us a new baseline that would take into account current ecological, fishery, and socioeconomic conditions.  The data collection surveys would be much more precise given the larger “coast-wide” scale, which in the end would give us better science.  Not to mention, going to a coast-wide measure would provide for some equity among anglers within a region by eliminating the current size and bag limit disparities.

All this said, because coast-wide measures would likely disadvantage some states in the short term, and because those states will most certainly argue that we’ll again be in a situation where some states will be paying for others’ overages, I seriously doubt that a motion to adopt coast-wide measures will have sufficient support at either the Council or ASMFC.  I say this with some certainty because during the last 5 years as a Council member from New York, we’ve advocated moving to such coast wide measures each year. Despite the consistent recommendations from Council and NMFS biologists that conservation equivalency should be abandoned, we always get shot down.

A regional approach certainly has a better chance of being accepted.  States could pool their allocations into regions that could account for the stock redistribution as well as the states’ shared waters.  Yet such regional management approaches have to be voluntary and thus far there hasn’t been any agreement between states to initiate such regions. Most states don’t appear give a crap about New York, especially if easing New York’s woes means that they stand to lose a half an inch or a few days in the season.

Still, there is some progress.  There was a recent addendum allowing for voluntary sharing of “unused” summer flounder quota from states that were under their target quota.  In other words, they could give that unused quota to those states that might have gone over.  That provided some relief for New York last year. But this of course is a short-term fix.   Yet, there has indeed been recent, serious discussion of the need for a longer-term solution.  As a result, ASMFC recently formed a Summer Flounder Working Group who, with the State of New York developed a number of options for regional management.  I suspect we’ll see robust discussion on the benefits and draw backs of each region at next week’s Mid Atlantic Council meeting.  Some of the regional proposals might stand a chance. It all depends on whether the states think that the tradeoffs are worthwhile and are willing to give up a half-inch here, a fish or two there and, most importantly, season length in the southern end of the range.

I guess the point of all this is that New York is pissed off.  We’ve been getting screwed under state-by-state/conservation equivalency for an awful long time.  As the stock expands and moves north and eastward the situation just gets worse.  It’s not just anglers, charter/partyboat owners and tackle industry folks. New York’s Governor is pissed.  And apparently so is Senator Chuck Schumer, who just introduced a bill which would require us to draft an entirely new Fishery Management Plan if this doesn’t get resolved…  this year.

There really is no management or biological justification for continuing with the current system.  It’s all come down to the special interests of individual states (So much for “cooperative management”).  This is not how the system is supposed to work.  The states know it.  The Mid Atlantic Council knows it, and NMFS knows it.  Year after year, the Council and ASMFC hear their staff biologists recommend that state-by-state management be abandoned; year after year, the majority of the Council and ASMFC vote in favor of it, simply to avoid two or three years of stricter limits, even though in the end coast wide management would result in better science, a better understanding of the stock dynamics, and a fair and equitable allocation.  What’s especially annoying is that NMFS knows that employing conservation equivalency is wrong but, to date, they haven’t had the courage to rise above state politics and impose coast-wide measures, although they certainly have the power to do so.

New York deserves and expects some relief in 2014, and we should get it.  As a Council, we have an obligation to work this out.  If we don’t, and the states continue to thumb their noses at us, I suspect there will be legal action, and it appears to be entirely justified.  The Magnuson Stevens Act’s National Standards are pretty clear.  National Standard 2 states “Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.”  That’s clearly not the case here if we disregard the new science on stock distribution, and if we continue to use the MRFSS/MRIP data on an inappropriately small scale that leads to high margins of error.  National Standard four states “Conservation and management measures shall not discriminate between residents of different States. If it becomes necessary to allocate or assign fishing privileges among various United States fishermen, such allocation shall be (A) fair and equitable to all such fishermen; (B) reasonably calculated to promote conservation; and (C) carried out in such manner that no particular individual, corporation, or other entity acquires an excessive share of such privileges.”  That one is pretty darn clear.  Lastly National Standard 6 states “Conservation and management measures shall take into account and allow for variations among, and contingencies in, fisheries, fishery resources, and catches.” Thus, if the best available science suggests that distribution of the stock in 2013 is different than the distribution of the stock in 1998 we have to address it.

Yes, the state of New York sued a couple of years ago on this and lost.  There was enough on the record to support the current rule, and in such cases a court won’t substitute its findings for that of a Federal agency, particularly with respect to such agency’s area of expertise. To overturn an agency decision, that decision must be “arbitrary”, “capricious” or illegal, and the judge determined that the summer flounder rulemaking was none of those.  But there are two things that need to be emphasized this time: the legal requirements of the Magnuson Stevenson Act and refusal by NMFS to rise above the state politics. Also the new science proving the changes in the distribution, abundance and age structure of the stock.

Quite honestly, I’m not a fan of such lawsuits as they take a lot of time and resources, which would be better served elsewhere.  But if we can’t work it out, in this case it’s entirely justified.  I’m really hoping we can agree on some sort of solution next week.  But if we can’t… Well…

Stay tuned.  Next week I’ll explain what happened and if there was any resolution.

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December 4, 2013

Coming to Justice

Photo courtesy of SC DNR

 

A couple of years ago, I wrote about four Maryland commercial netters – or should I say “poachers” – who were linked to illegally setting gill nets to catch tens of thousands of pounds of striped bass. The investigation was triggered by the discovery of an illegal net off Kent Island in the upper Chesapeake Bay in February of 2011. It turned up falsified catch documentation going back to 2007. Much of that illegal catch then was traced as being sold across state lines to New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Seemingly, that would violate the Lacey Act, which prohibits such actions.

In November a federal grand jury handed down an indictment on this long-pending case. The indictment alleges criminal conspiracy in the illegal catching of striped bass and the subsequent interstate sale of the illegal catch. My sincere hope is that these alleged criminals, masquerading as hard-working commercial fishermen, become wards of the federal government for a very long time. History, however, is not on the side of that outcome.

I applaud the Maryland Department of Natural Resources officers for putting a lot of long hours into researching this case. Their perseverance and dogged determination led to the indictment. Without their efforts it is likely that the alleged perpetrators would get only a slap on the wrist and have to pay a small fine, which only amounts to a cost of doing business. State and local judges have been reluctant to throw the book at this type of criminal activity. With this indictment, the case gets elevated to a federal court as a Lacey Act violation. That carries some real consequences.

Some might say that these DNR officers are only doing their jobs. Yeah, I get it. They are, but from my standpoint I don’t know what keeps them motivated when in the past their hard work has been largely disregarded by the state and local court systems. How many times have I read coverage about illegal fishing activities only to see those who got caught pay a small fine and be back at business as usual the next day. Why courts have been so reluctant to take a harsher stance is beyond me. Something akin to the three strikes kind of process would be a deterrent. First time … OK, it might have been a mistake, but a reasonable fine should get your attention. Second offense is not a mistake. You pay a hefty fine, do some jail time and lose your fishing permit for at least a year. Third offense: bye, bye. Pay a very hefty fine, do a big chunk of jail time and be subjected to a lifetime loss of all fishing permits.

I know, I know. Judges are very reluctant to take away someone’s ability to make a living. Can’t say that I understand why. I am unable to distinguish between stealing a public resource and robbing a 7-Eleven. The courts should understand that illegal harvest of common property resources takes away someone else’s ability to earn a living. It has a ripple effect far beyond the criminal activity itself.

I want to be sure that DNR officers, environmental police or whatever they are called in different states continue to be motivated to go the extra mile in pursuing a case. These folks are protecting our resources, and their job is not easy. In today’s world of bending way over backwards to protect the “rights” of the criminals, I wonder how we are trampling on the rights of the innocent – not to mention the condition of our resources. Too often, natural resource officers do whatever they can do to bring a case to justice, and all their work is negated by too light of a sentence. Those of us who would like to see our resources around for future generations need to support their good work.

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