Do you have any thoughts on this post?
Members of the committee had a recurring question about the projected 3.2 million acre-foot* shortfall between supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin: What – if anything – should the federal government do about it?
In his opening remarks, Sen. Lee (R-UT) approvingly read from the study’s disclaimer that said the study is not to be used as a foundation for any legislative or regulatory action by the federal government. Sen. Udall (D-CO) directly asked the first panel of witnesses what the federal government’s role should be. Sen. Flake (R-AZ) reiterated this question to the second panel of witnesses, saying it was his preference that the federal government be the “last resort” when it comes to solving water problems in the basin.
These statements reflect an appropriate hesitance in Congress to tell Western states what to do with their water.
Management of water resources has always been the province of the states, a responsibility they vigorously defend. But it is wrong to think the federal government doesn’t have a role to play or Congress a responsibility to act.
Mike Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, called Reclamation a valued partner to the states in water management. Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, was more explicit. He said Reclamation provides essential technical support, guidance and research to the states. He also testified that funding for programs such as WaterSMART makes the Colorado River Basin Study possible. Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy, asked for support for WaterSMART in her testimony.
The federal role in responding to our water resources management challenges is broader than what these witnesses testified, however. Leaving aside the fact that issues between states that also impact other countries (e.g., Mexico in the case of the Colorado River) have a necessary federal nexus, the problems in the Colorado River Basin are a bellwether for issues coming to all parts of the country.
The northwestern and southeastern United States are already facing water conflicts analogous to those in the Colorado River Basin, the U.S. energy sector is vulnerable nationwide to projected water shortages and floods, and water for fish and wildlife is too often an afterthought among other competing uses.
If you care about having water to drink in Atlanta or lights that come on in Seattle or wetlands that support wildlife in the northern Great Plains, you should be interested in lessons being learned right now in the Colorado River Basin.
There is one action sportsmen and Congress can take in the short term to address these disparate challenges: support WaterSMART. This program and similar federal efforts are competitive cost share programs that develop local solutions to national problems. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, WaterSMART grants have already led to 616,000 acre-feet of water saved through conservation.
In 2013 alone, WaterSMART gave the following:
In fiscal year 2013, the federal government spent a little over $52 million on the WaterSMART program. For 2014, President Obama has asked Congress for $35 million for the program, a 32 percent cut from last year. The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would fund WaterSMART at $16.6 million, a 68 percent cut from last year. As part of that cut, the House bill would completely eliminate funding for the competitive grants, like those listed above, that have led to significant on-the-ground water conservation in partnership with local communities.
The bright spot is the Senate, which has legislation funding WaterSMART at $51 million. This is essentially the same level as last year, 45 percent above President Obama’s request and three times the House level. When the House and Senate meet to resolve their differences and fund the government for 2014, they can demonstrate to sportsmen how important water conservation is by the level of investment they make in WaterSMART.
Congress can also show its support for sportsmen by extending the successful WaterSMART partnerships with state and local entities. The authorization for water conservation grants is about to run out, which is part of the reason funding is in jeopardy. At a minimum, Congress needs to reauthorize these grants and renew its commitment to water conservation.
The TRCP Center for Water Resources will be taking this message to Congress. Stay tuned for ways you can get involved to let your representatives in Congress know that investments that conserve water for fish and wildlife are important to hunters and anglers.
* An acre–foot of water is approximately as much water as a family of four will use in a year.
Forget about slot limits and gamefish… address fishing mortality!
Having served on the ASMFC Striped Bass Advisory Panel for 6 years (not to mention having pretty much built a business on striped bass) I read Lou Tabory’s recent Striper Report 2013 piece in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Magazine with interest. I have great respect for Tabory. He was a pioneer. His piece provides an interesting historical, albeit anecdotal, perspective on striped bass from the point of view of someone that has fished for them hard over the course of three decades. Yet, I’d have to say that it reflects a general misunderstand most anglers have on the issue.
I’m guessing very few readers of this column would disagree that stripers appear to be headed for trouble. Sure there are still fish around. In fact I’ve had some epic days in the last few years. I’ve seen more 40’s and 50’s in the space of a few days than I’ve seen in my entire life. But it generally lasts no more than a few days as bodies of large fish move through. Gone are the days of consistent schoolie action, with the occasional large fish, which I built a business on. The new pattern seems to be that I’m on them for a few days, then there’s a precipitous lack of fish, sometimes for long stretches. Years ago, getting skunked was rare for me. I can’t say that’s the case anymore. I’m certainly not alone in such observations.
When you look at the recent science this sort of thing makes sense really. Each year, young-of-the year seine surveys are taken in various spots in the Chesapeake Bay. Given the bulk of the striped bass resource is produced in the Chesapeake watershed it’s a pretty good indicator of what we can expect to see in the fishery moving forward. During the last 8 years such surveys have shown average to well-below average young-of-the-year numbers, with the anomalous exception of 2011 which was quite good. This trend is much different from the prior decade where we had several banner year classes. All of this coincides with what guys like me are seeing on the water. Good, albeit very limited runs of larger older striped bass – those fish that are generally older than 9 or 10 years. As these fish grow older we continue to hammer on them while they become larger, yet few and fewer, and there isn’t much behind them.
Why are we having these poor young-of-the-year indices? There is some pretty good science out there suggesting it’s climate-related. NOAA scientists have documented what they’re calling an “Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation” (AMO), a combination of wind and ocean currents in the North Atlantic that seems to change every 35 years or so. When such a shift happens, it affects local weather along the Atlantic Coast, providing deliberate temperature and precipitation shifts, and subsequently river flow and salinity changes. During a warm phase springtime along the East Coast tends to be wet and cool — more rain, more water, and more food for just-hatched stripers. And during such trends we’ve had good young of the year indices, and subsequently striper numbers go up. Then, 35 years or so later the AMO flips and we have drier springs, less rain, less food. After a lag, striper numbers start to decline. This appears to be where we’re at right now. And guess what… A prior AMO flip coincided with the poor young-of-the-year indices that contributed to the striper crash in the 1980s. When that cycle ended, stripers recovered, not just because of the moratorium, but likely because conditions for their success became more favorable.
So yes, there are likely natural factors at work here, which managers of course have no control over. But… they do have control over fishing mortality, and regardless of the cause, given the decline both anecdotally and on paper, they should be reducing mortality! Just about everyone and their mothers are asking them to do something! But they aren’t… Because technically, striped bass are not overfished, and overfishing isn’t occurring.
Striped bass are managed by fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass thresholds for management action. These are parameters that ASMFC scientists have put on the stock, that if exceeded, trigger corrective action such as reducing fishing mortality. Thus far, fishing mortality has remained below the threshold and spawning stock biomass above it. ASMFC is generally not compelled to take action until such thresholds have been crossed. It is, in fact, very rare the ASMFC would take management action unless the science indicated it was necessary. In this case it hasn’t.
While certainly Commissioners hear from their constituents, it’s difficult for a lot of them to comprehend there’s a real problem with striped bass when a.) A number of the fish they manage are technically overfished, and/or overfishing is occurring (e.g. winter flounder, weakfish, tautog etc.), b.) There are still pockets of very good stripe bass fishing even as the stock contract, and c.) Most Commissioners simply don’t spend the time on the water that we do. Believe it or not, there are still those managers who frequently say stupid things like “striped bass are eating everything” when discussing species they have failed to properly manage like winter flounder, or river herring. Such assertions are ridiculous give the historical abundance of such species side-by-side in the same environment.
But I’m getting into too much detail here. Given the abundant evidence of a decline and the importance of the striped bass stock to the recreational fishing industry, a good case for precautionary action can certainly have been made. Unfortunately, despite the clear fact that the majority of stakeholders wanted to see a reduction in fishing mortality, ASMFC punted with Addendum 3 (their 2011 chance to reduce fishing mortality), and we’ll now have to wait for the results of the 2012 benchmark, which is being peer-reviewed right now, and 2014 (if we’re lucky) for new regulations, assuming ASMFC wises up and opts to reduce fishing mortality.
And simply reducing fishing mortality is all we need ASMFC to do! Yet the point of this blog is that the fishing public (even well respected guys like Tabory) seem to keep talking about things like slot-limits (a fish in-between a certain size limit) and game fish status (making the species recreational only) as if these two things are the antidote to the striped bass decline. They aren’t!
A striped bass coastal slot limit, unless it’s crafted in a way that distributes mortality (which is actually very hard to do), is unwise. For one, such slot limits tend to place a lot of pressure on very specific year classes. By implementing a slot limit we’d run the risk of severely depleting a weak year class that happens to fall within a slot limit’s bounds. Given the average to well-below-average young-of-the-year indices during the last 8 years (with the exception of 2011) one can see how a coastal slot limit may be problematic in the striped bass fishery.
Because smaller fish (e.g. 24 to 28”) are generally easier for the fishing public to catch, fishing mortality would go through the roof. In other words, a lot more fish are killed with such a slot than if the size limit had remained at 28” (or in a perfect world 36”), and a lot more are killed before they have had a chance to spawn! Allowing a fish to spawn at least once before it’s killed is fisheries management 101, and that’s essentially what a 28” size-limit seeks to do. With a species like striped bass, the key to effective management is allowing enough older, larger and more fecund fish, representing a number of age classes, to survive, in order to assure that there is adequate spawning stock in reserve to make up for the poor or missing year classes. That is best done by reducing mortality, not by imposing a slot limit.
The answer to the striped bass problem isn’t a slot limit, it’s actually much simpler. Managers just need to reduce fishing mortality. Whether that’s done with a higher size limit, smaller bag limit, or a shorter seasons is irrelevant. But you generally can’t reduce fishing mortality using slot limits.
Now let’s talk about the popular “gamefish” fix, which a lot of people mistakenly think is the magic bullet. Yes it’s easy to point the finger at commercial fishermen. I’m the first one to admit that it’s incredibly irritating when the boat next to you is bailing fish he intends to sell, either legally or illegally. But assuming the problem is fishing mortality anglers are definitely the largest perpetrators. The commercial fishery is controlled through quotas, so commercial fishermen cannot go over the “harvest cap” set by the state (at least not legally). The recreational fishery, on the other hand, is managed through bag and size limits. The growing popularity of fishing for stripers and the lack of any sort of recreational harvest cap has allowed a large increase in recreational mortality over the years while commercial mortality has remained virtually static. In 2006, the year the recreational striper fishery peaked, recreational dead discards alone (those fish that didn’t survive the release) were around double the total commercial catch. Pretty startling right?
I’m not saying commercial fishermen are not part of the problem. They certainly are. It was hard to miss all the photos and videos of acres of dead discards from North Carolina trawlers a couple of years ago. Equally disturbing were the tens of thousands of pounds of dead stripers caught in illegal gill-nets found in Chesapeake tributaries. This is likely just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discards and poaching. But let’s be honest. Such dead fish, while an inexcusable waste of the resource, still pale in comparison to recreational mortality. Couple this with the fact that some coastal states who were able to get gamefish status after the last crash ended up giving their commercial quota to anglers, and it’s hard to argue for game-fish with a straight face. Until we get recreational mortality under control, “wealthy anglers taking fish away from hard-working commercial fishermen” doesn’t play well with decision-makers. “Gamefish” is empowering, and of course I support the theory, but these are the realities of the situation.
Assuming striped bass continue to decline, there is a rationale for gamefish, but thus far the angling community hasn’t picked up on it. I don’t really have the space to fully explain this here but will certainly do so in a future blog (perhaps the next one if nothing pressing comes up). Regardless, the reality is that gamefish is politically very difficult right now, and in my mind a nonstarter.
If the recreational fishing community continues to perpetuate the myth that it’s commercial fishing that’s causing the decline or, that a slot limit is the answer, it will just strengthen the idea that many, if not most, Commissioners harbor– that the recreational community doesn’t really get it. And so, they can just disregard us. I’ve had personal conversations with such Commissioners who have told me, in so many words, that this is the case. This is essentially what’s been happening over the last several years as Commissioners fail to listen to constituent pleas for precautionary management action.
We need be clear on what we, as a community of stakeholders, want. A reduction in fishing mortality. So that we can enjoy the abundance of fish we had just five years ago and so recreational fishing business can continue to thrive and so that anglers can continue to enjoy a rebuilt, abundant fishery. I don’t see any reason for a two-fish coastal limit. And really, the size limit should probably be higher. But how it gets done doesn’t really matter to me, and it shouldn’t to you. Reduce fishing mortality! That’s what our message should be!
At this point, whether ASMFC does reduce fishing mortality is really contingent on what the 2012 benchmark stock assessment reveals, and of course how much noise those of us who fish for this amazing animal (and those of who depend on this fishery make a living) make.
The 2012 assessment is currently being peer-reviewed, yet I suspect it will be released very soon. I will let readers know what it says just as soon as we have it. Stay tuned!
About Captain John McMurray
After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.
A couple of weeks ago I had to go to Washington, DC to testify in a Senate Hearing on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is the federal law that governs fisheries in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or from 3 to 200 miles. While I don’t mind the process, and it is a process, of having to testify, I hate going to DC in the summer. I really hate it when I have to miss an event right in my back yard that I want to attend.
That event was the breaching of the Veazie Dam on the Penobscot River just upstream from Bangor, ME. A lot of folks would think that this event only benefits Atlantic salmon and has little to do with many of the other fish that we like to catch. Wrong! This was an historic event that opened up one of the biggest rivers in the New England area that has been essentially closed to fish passage for over 150 years. Yes, it will benefit the Atlantic salmon, but it will do much more. It is one more step in an effort to restore the greater Gulf of Maine ecosystem.
This dam removal was the culmination of 15 years of concerted effort by a very diverse group pulled together by a common thread. The Atlantic Salmon Federation, American Rivers, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and the Penobscot Indian Nation all worked together to raise $62 million to begin a new chapter in the rivers restoration. One of the most encouraging aspects of this event is that many of those who worked to get this project done were fighting each other back in the 1990’s over the relicensing of this and other dams. So it was a complete turnaround from fighting each other to trusting each other and working together for a common cause. This is fantastic stuff.
Once the dam is fully removed, it will open up almost a thousand miles of river to a variety of species. Yes, it will benefit Atlantic salmon, but there are a number of species that are important to the overall ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine, such as river herring, shad and rainbow smelt. It will also benefit striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon and tomcod. River herring are an important component of the forage base and could help with the restoration of Eastern Main cod populations. The salmon numbers over the past three years have ranged from 374 (2013) to over 3000 (2011). It is thought that about 2,000 Atlantic salmon have passed over the dam and predictions are that this could rise to an annual run of 20,000. The annual run of river herring could increase a thousand fold and reach a run of 2 million fish.
Hopefully, we are realizing that free flowing rivers are important to the health of our marine ecosystems and hopefully we are not too late. As fish populations move North and East, this will likely be the southern-most range of the Atlantic salmon in North America, but it can and will be an important part of the life cycle to countless other fish. It is proof positive that we can accomplish substantial goals when we work collectively. And, yes, it seems counter intuitive to be eliminating clean energy, but the reality is that this dam produced very little and is easily replaced. As part of the Veazie Dam project, Black Bear Hydro Partners is completing improvements at six dams that means hydropower production will be maintained and likely increased with support of the project partners.
Saltwater fishing in Florida is surprisingly good in spite of all of the obstacles anglers face.
Bureaucrats at all levels of government do their best to make things tough for fishermen. From increased fees for citizens to launch their boats at public ramps, regulations that are either too restrictive or too lax, and to environmental issues that are overblown or ignored.
I’ve been covering the outdoors in South Florida for more than 20 years for the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale. Some fishing has improved dramatically since I arrived from upstate New York, while fishing for other species has suffered.
One constant during that time: recreational anglers rarely get any credit for the good stuff, but they almost always get the blame for the bad stuff.
For example, the quality of South Florida’s coral reefs has declined, in large part due to pollution and poor water quality. Yet recreational anglers and scuba divers get almost all the blame from agencies and groups that are in favor of marine protected areas, or MPAs, which would keep people out. There is no talk of having Florida’s water management districts limit the amount of polluted freshwater they let loose during and after heavy rainstorms and hurricanes. Much of that water in South Florida goes out to inlets, which hurts reefs and everything that depends on them.
An even worse situation is currently taking place in Stuart, where two of the best inshore fisheries in the state, the St. Lucie River and the Indian River, have been plagued by nasty freshwater being released from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie.
Before a dike was built around the lake, and what used to be the northern Everglades was converted into farmland, when the lake got high, the water overflowed and gently seeped to the south.
Now when the water gets high in Lake Okeechobee – much of it coming from Orlando after a rain event and flowing south through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and the Kissimmee River into the northern end of the lake – the South Florida Water Management District sends it southeast to Stuart and southwest down the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers rather than letting it flow south and impacting sugar cane and vegetable growers.
The dirty water has negatively impacted seagrass, fish and fishing, yet the state allows it to continue, essentially saying that it has no other choice.
Poor water quality that affects coral, sea grass and fish populations also is an issue in Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay, parts of which are in national parks and under federal jurisdiction. The feds’ reponse? Limit boaters and anglers.
Then there is the problem of lionfish. Some of these aquarium fish were dumped in the ocean off South Florida in the mid-1980s. Now the invasive fish, which are native to the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, are everywhere: on reefs, in the Atlantic Ocean as deep as 1,000 feet, the Loxahatchee River, Indian River, and Florida Bay.
Lionfish eat the young of important native species such as snappers and hogfish and have no predators. Divers have been taking it upon themselves to kill as many lionfish as they can while fisheries managers contemplate what to do. Unless they take decisive action, lionfish will eventually decimate recreational fish species in Florida.
About Steve Waters
Steve Waters has been the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel since August of 1990. He got his start in journalism in Charleston, S.C., where he was a sportswriter and covered sailing. In his spare time, he fished for striped bass on the famed Santee-Cooper lakes with one of the high school football coaches he knew and later bought a bass boat so he could fish there on his own. When his sports editor at his next paper, The Tuscaloosa News, found out he had a boat, he asked him if he wanted to cover the outdoors in addition to covering the Crimson Tide. It wasn’t long before Waters realized that writing about fishing was way more fun than covering Alabama football. He went on to cover the outdoors for two more newspapers and a TV station, as well as sports ranging from golf and baseball to NASCAR and the NHL, before writing full-time about fishing, boating, sailing, diving, hunting, powerboat racing and environmental issues for the Sun Sentinel.
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