Do you have any thoughts on this post?
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:
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.
On Wednesday morning, the council’s Snapper Grouper Committee will discuss whether closed areas are beneficial. Then the committee will consider the establishment of 12 new marine protected areas and habitat areas of particular concern and the tweaking of four current closed areas to increase the population of speckled hind and warsaw grouper.
The waters in question range from North Carolina to Florida. If everything that has been proposed is approved, the total amount of protected area would increase by a few hundred square miles. Whatever the committee decides, public hearings won’t be held until 2014.
I am not against having closed areas as long as there is a need for them and they protect the species in question. Unfortunately, the federal government has a track record of claiming a species is in dire need of protection and goes ahead with plans to close an area to fishing.
When anglers and, in the case of Florida, for example, biologists with the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission challenge that claim, the feds suddenly announce that the species in question is actually doing quite well and the closure is no longer needed.
Another problem with closed areas is they often prohibit all types of fishing. In the case of bottom-dwelling species like speckled hind and warsaw grouper, it makes sense to prohibit bottom fishing for other groupers and snappers because there is a chance of accidentally catching the species in question.
Not allowing anglers to troll or live-bait on the surface for species such as dolphin, wahoo and billfish, even though the chances of catching a grouper or snapper are between slim and none, makes no sense. In this case, the South Atlantic Council could allow trolling.
One other problem I have with closed areas is they rarely ever become open areas again, despite the promises of the reigning federal fishery managers. What often results is a perverse type of Catch-22.
If the protected area doesn’t work, the managers and environmental groups, many of whom believe that no one should be allowed to fish, will say that the area needs to be expanded to make it work better.
If the protected area does work, those same people will say that since it is doing such a good job of increasing fish populations, it makes sense to expand the area to protect even more fish from the hooks of recreational anglers.
Then there are the factors that do way more damage to fish and their habitat than recreational anglers, but are never considered, like fertilizer-laden runoff and minimally treated sewage.
In Florida, those things lead to algae blooms and bleaching of coral reefs, which negatively impact the juvenile fish that fishery managers are so concerned about protecting from anglers.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to tell anglers that they can’t fish somewhere than telling state, federal and municipal bureaucrats that they need to stop pumping fouled freshwater into our estuaries and the Atlantic Ocean.
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So… It looks like there are quite a few people who have their panties in a bunch over my recent column in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters:Deep Diving (is spearfishing the blood-sport we think it is?). If you are on Facebook, you will see the well over 100 comments on the article which I posted on my page, most of which are from people who appear to be greatly offended, and well… angry. (Please do “friend” me if you’d like to see those comments). Believe me, I get it. It’s beyond infuriating to see some knucklehead holding a big, fecund dead and bloody fish, which had likely lived for two decades before this bonehead decided it would be fun to put a spear in it. But if you could have made it past the knee jerk reaction, and, uhm, read the article, you would have probably seen a different picture.
If you are too busy/lazy to read the article, I’ll summarize it in a couple of paragraphs. Spear-fishermen in Louisiana have been shooting tarpon (29 in the last 3 years according to the Louisiana Council of Dive Clubs) so that Dr. William Stein (an ardent tarpon angler turned marine biologist) may dissect and analyze the fish with the intent of finding out more about them, and with the end goal of providing relevant information that may ultimately help us protect them.
Unfortunately, a spearfishing club unwisely posted photos of dead tarpon/hero-shots as well as video of the act itself. Yes, it was offensive, yet pretty much harmless, and in fact beneficial when you consider the scientific use of such fish. Yet, there was a reverberating reaction as editorials popped up everywhere and internet forums lit up. In response, there were some who rightly pointed out that recreational release mortality (whether it’s 10% or 4%) simply dwarfs whatever damage such speared fish might cause, even if you were to assume spear-fishermen kill “hundreds” of tarpon a year (which they don’t, simply because, as anyone who has ever fished for them knows, tarpon are big, strong, fast animals). In other words, it’s really freak’n dangerous. And, despite whatever preconceived notion folks might have of spear-fishers, they generally don’t like to kill simply for the sake of killing, and you really can’t eat tarpon without having a gag reflex.
None of this apparently mattered to a lot of people who read the piece. That’s assuming they did read the piece in its entirety (given some of the comments on my Facebook page, I have to believe a lot of people didn’t bother to read the entire article, at least not initially). Killing a tarpon was wrong in any case, they claimed. Yet when anyone, including me, pointed out that, well, anglers inadvertently kill a lot more tarpon, and that perhaps we shouldn’t throw stones.… Well, it got a little ugly. There were folks who simply denied and continue to deny the well-established fact that release mortality is significant. And there were people who claimed that they deserve no blame and that the perceived reduction in tarpon over the last two decades was simply due to habitat loss. The latter may be true; however, natural mortality due to habitat loss, plus fishing mortality, of course equals total mortality, so you really can’t point to habitat loss and say you are not responsible at all. Because you are. And, well, individually, there isn’t much we can do about habitat loss, while there are indeed steps we can take to reduce fishing mortality. I listed such steps in my article, no need to rehash here.
Moving on, there are those folks who surprisingly believe that Dr. Stein is not really using these fish for science at all. They claim his documented research is simply an excuse to allow blood-thirsty divers to shoot tarpon. Well, this is just silly. Those divers are entitled to shoot as many tarpon as they want as there are no regulations (gear type, seasons, bag/size limits) in either state or federal waters. Why on earth would they need to use Dr. Stein’s work as an excuse?!
What was perhaps most disturbing, however, were the deeply personal attacks from both sides, some of which came from supposedly unbiased scientists. Frightening given that I had always thought that marine biologists were supposed to be objective. In this case, they certainly weren’t.
The bottom line is this. Anglers more than likely kill orders of magnitude more tarpon than Louisiana spear-fishers. To deny this is intellectually dishonest, self-serving and scientifically inaccurate. I don’t like to see dead tarpon either, but given the facts, I’m certainly okay with some being killed via spear for science. And, of course I like to throw flies at tarpon just as much as anyone else. And in no way did I or would I suggest we stop. I made what I thought was a very valid point; that we probably shouldn’t throw stones at the innocents when we might be living in glass houses, because, in the end, a dead tarpon is a dead tarpon. I followed up by suggesting some things we should be focusing on rather than those fish killed for science by spear-fishers.
The point of this blog is not, however, to simply rehash that debate. It is that, unfortunately, this sort of finger-pointing has become endemic in the recreational fishing community and particularly the flyfishing community. There is often a complete denial that we have any impact, and we frequently act as if we are simply above it all, because we release most, if not all, of what we catch, and we promote conservation in our magazines, etc. Yet most of us are loath to attend a public hearing, or to otherwise actually do something constructive; instead, we just complain about “those guys”. I’m not saying that being a conservationist (e.g. releasing “keepers”, carefully handling fish, educating other anglers etc.) or that promoting conservation isn’t significant. It is! But the supposition that it’s “those guys” or even, in this case anyway, “habitat destruction” has become a distraction from doing what’s best for the fishery, which is in most cases is reducing total mortality. I touched on this during a recent striped bass blog. Such finger pointing to some extent has taken our community’s eye off the ball, and in several cases has severely reduced anglers’ credibility amongst fishery managers. I know this to be true, because I’ve sat with such managers and they’ve told me point-blank that this is the case. And we wonder why we are always being accused of being elitist, snobs, and/or why managers simply don’t listen to us.
Believe me, I’m on your team here, but we have to be real. We really need to work at thoroughly understanding the issues, provide useful solution-oriented comment, and be willing not to rule ourselves out as part of the problem, because in many fisheries we likely are! We have to remember that despite the fact that we, as anglers, may be the best stewards of the resource, that resource does not belong to us. It belongs to the public. And unfortunately, that includes the guy in Wisconsin who might want a fresh fish fillet without having to drive out here to catch it.
As anglers and conservation advocates, we have to work within the system, making compelling arguments that take all sides into account. Not simply come out, guns blazing, that these fish are ours, we don’t have an impact, and we’re more economically important or something. Unfortunately that seems to be the track most recreational opinion leaders want to take. And it isn’t working. .
The take home message here is that we can be part of the solution if we, for one, acknowledge that we may be part of the problem and two, educate ourselves on all aspects of the issue at hand, instead of shooting off with knee jerk reactions similar to the one we saw here with the speared tarpon. In the future, I’ll do my best to educate readers on what the aspects of such issues are. So stay tuned!
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