Dreams of the Fabled Fall Blitz Turn Into an Industrialized Fishing Nightmare
The scene that shocked East Coast anglers who waited all year to cruise up to striped bass blitzing on an embattled forage fish
I look forward to fall fishing all year long. It is a little cooler, the days a little shorter, and the convergence of baitfish and predators feeds the fabled fall blitz and takes over my imagination. A few weeks ago, I headed out ready to fish the fall migration with coolers full, sandwiches made, and strong reports of striped bass, false albacore, and bluefish in the area. A Long Island Grand Slam was on our agenda.
We couldn’t get out there fast enough when we saw what every angler wants to see: birds dive-bombing the water above a huge pod of bunker. These Atlantic menhaden support pretty much every sportfish we care about. And they’re so critical to the ecosystem that anglers up and down the East Coast would like to see them managed with their value as a forage fish in mind.
Through binoculars, we saw an even larger flock of birds indicating some action in the distance, so we got the boat up on plane and gunned it to see what was going on. But we were not prepared to see a 200-foot purse seining boat vacuuming up millions of bunker.
I knew this was happening down in Virginia—where a single company represents the last holdout in the commercial harvest of menhaden—but what the heck were these boats doing up in New York waters? Hearing about it is bad, but seeing the scale of this type of fishing in person is shocking and demoralizing. There was a spotter plane flying above to find the fish and two smaller boats dispatched by the mother ship to surround the school with a huge net.
They were removing millions of pounds of bait that make our best days on the water possible. And, quite simply, if you remove the bait, the predators will leave, too. Imagine a fresh chill in the air and no birds on the horizon.
Standing there with my rod and reel, I felt really insignificant next to this industrial operation. New York doesn’t allow reduction fishing—the practice of “reducing” commercially harvested fish like menhaden into fishmeal or fish oil—in the three miles offshore that constitute state waters. In fact, reduction fishing has been banned off the coastal waters of every Atlantic state, with the exception of Virginia. But we were just beyond that boundary within federal waters, where reduction fishing of this sort is currently permitted in what is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. (Ironically, all striped bass fishing–both recreational and commercial–is strictly prohibited in the EEZ.)
How can removing that much forage from the marine food web be the best use of the resource for New York fishermen and our economy? These boats, run by Omega Protein, would soon be taking these fish back to Virginia to be processed and then shipped to Canada to feed farmed salmon. But what about our wild stripers, albies, and blues?
Not too long ago, menhaden were in real trouble due to overfishing. Scientists agree that the menhaden’s recovery began when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the government body that manages the species, enacted the first-ever catch limits on bunker in 2013.
But the return of menhaden has now also brought the Omega Protein fleet back to our waters with their spotter planes, and our future fishing opportunities could be left in their wake.
For decades, Omega (now owned by Canadian Cooke Inc.) has opposed a more ecological approach to fisheries management and consistently lobbies for aggressive catch increases that would jeopardize the return of menhaden populations. Why? Because their business depends on churning out more fishmeal and fish oil.
Omega’s return to New York and New Jersey has created outrage and should spark action. If menhaden populations in Virginia are as healthy as Omega says, why did they need to travel 270 miles from their home port in Reedsville to catch their quota?
Removing a critical food source for sportfish in the New York Bight and taking it back to Virginia is an irresponsible use of the resource. We need this bait for our predators and the outdoor recreation economy they support. Our policymakers should not allow local anglers to sacrifice for the benefit of one company.
All but one of the Atlantic Coast states have banned the ecologically damaging practice of menhaden reduction fishing in their territorial waters. Perhaps the time has come for the federal government to do the same.
With management and conservation cutbacks looming, the future of Pennsylvania’s fisheries depends on anglers’ leadership in footing the bill
Hunters and anglers have always stepped up to the plate when it comes to conserving our best fish and wildlife habitat for future generations. Right now, Pennsylvanians have another golden opportunity to do just that.
In recent years, fish and wildlife conservation programs at both the state at federal level have seen cuts in funding, leading to fewer quality hunting and fishing opportunities across the country. Among those agencies affected by this trend is the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which is tasked with providing safe access to Pennsylvania’s 86,000 miles of rivers and streams, the most of any state in the lower 48. The commission also handles the enforcement and regulation of boating and fishing on all waters within the Commonwealth. Revenue from the sale of fishing licenses provides the PFBC with its primary source of funding, and it receives no money from the state general fund. In short, this model means that the PFBC’s scope of responsibilities has no bearing on the size of its budget.
The last increase in recreational angling license fees occurred in 2005, thirteen years ago. Only eight years later, expenses were projected to soon outpace revenues, and in an effort to lower operating costs the PFBC planned to close two hatcheries. The announcement caused an outcry among sportsmen, and as a result lawmakers in 2013 promised to work alongside the agency toward a license fee increase.
Five years later, little progress has been made. And, still, the PFBC continues to operate with diminished funds.
The most visible consequence of this inaction is fewer wildlife conservation officers, who not only respond to waterway emergencies but also investigate pollution reports and provide resource education.
Less visible, however, is the effect of declining revenues on conservation programs, like the wildly successful Unassessed Waters Initiative, a collaborative effort by the PFBC and conservation groups. Guided by recommendations from sportsmen and anglers, PFBC staffers and wildlife science students from local colleges visit streams that have never been surveyed to document the presence of wild trout. Waters with wild trout populations often qualify for additional protections, so that these habitats and the fishing opportunities they offer will be conserved for generations to come.
Given the sheer volume of running water in Pennsylvania, this is a time-intensive effort. As of January 2017, PFBC staffers and partners had only surveyed approximately 32,442 stream miles, but a more robustly funded PFBC would allow the UWI to operate at full potential. “A license fee increase would have a profound impact on the Unassessed Waters Initiative,” says George Kutskel, an officer for the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited.
Legislation that has been introduced in the state capital could provide the agency with the license fee increase it needs to operate conservation programs currently under threat. The bill’s future, however, remains uncertain. While some have raised concerns regarding the amount of the proposed increase, the PFBC has determined that a $7 increase on the cost of an annual fishing license would allow the agency to better fulfill its mandate to “protect, conserve, and enhance the commonwealth’s aquatic resources.”
Despite the tremendous good that this license fee increase would do for fish, clean water, and the future of Pennsylvania’s angling traditions, sportsmen and women will only see progress on this front in the next legislative session if we make our voices heard. Concerned residents should let their state representative or senator know the importance—and urgency—of this issue.
Pennsylvania residents can look up contact information for their state representative and state senator at the following link:
Water Resources Bill Goes to Trump with Big Win for Everglades Restoration
Water infrastructure package with benefits for fish, wildlife, and the outdoor recreation economy heads to president’s desk with bipartisan support
Today, in a 99-1 vote, senators acted overwhelmingly in support of water resources and sent landmark legislation to the president’s desk that would expedite restoration efforts in the Everglades. The “America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018” (S. 3021) also takes important steps to advance nature-based infrastructure solutions—like restoring wetlands and dunes to reduce flood and storm damage—that are more cost-effective for the American taxpayer.
The House passed the bill unanimously last month.
“This is the biggest step forward for natural infrastructure that we’ve seen this Congress, and it builds on recent momentum to restore critical habitat and water quality in the Everglades,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “American sportsmen and women should be heartened to see this level of bipartisanship for conservation, especially at a moment in the political calendar when both sides typically retreat to their own corners. We appreciate the leadership of Sen. Barrasso, Sen. Carper, Rep. Shuster, and Rep. DeFazio.”
The legislation advances two critical projects that will improve clean water flows throughout South Florida and supports the development of technologies to reduce harmful algal blooms that infamously killed fish across the state this summer. It will also provide for more advanced research on preventing the spread of invasive species like Asian carp and zebra mussels, whose growing populations threaten many popular fishing destinations.
“Today is a great day for America’s Everglades and the people of Florida. Construction can now begin on a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that is vital to reconnecting the lake to the Florida Keys. The economic benefits of this project cannot be overstated, as Florida’s economy depends on clean water, thriving fisheries and a robust real estate market,” says Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.
Indeed, improving habitat and supporting predictable fishing opportunities will benefit Florida’s $2.9-billion recreational fishing industry.
“Passage of America’s Water Infrastructure Act is a monumental step in restoring the Everglades and providing clean water for Florida’s fisheries. This legislation is crucial to reducing the ongoing estuary discharges and algal blooms affecting the state, and we greatly appreciate the leadership of Florida’s Congressional Delegation in securing its passage. We look forward to working with Congress to ensure that sufficient funding is available to carry out the Act’s provisions,” says Kellie Ralston, Southeast Fisheries Policy Director of the American Sportfishing Association.
The bill also greenlights a feasibility study for habitat restoration projects in the Lower Mississippi River region. These projects could produce multiple benefits for fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities across six states.
Another important provision of this legislation will help to give higher priority to natural and nature-based infrastructure solutions that reduce storm risks, enhance public safety, and conserve fish and wildlife habitat near Army Corps of Engineers project sites. Lawmakers supported requiring the Government Accountability Office to examine the costs and benefits that the Corps considers when authorizing projects. The current process likely underestimates the long-term cost savings of natural infrastructure projects, and bringing greater transparency to project deliberations is a positive step toward righting this imbalance.
Five Must-Download Conservation Podcasts for the Weekend
Grab your earbuds and download some serious knowledge about landlocked public lands, chronic wasting disease, the Everglades, and more
Whether you’re looking forward to a three-day weekend road trip or just a long walk to a treestand, here are some of the best podcast episodes on conservation to hit the internet lately.
If you’ve always wanted to land a tarpon in paradise…
You need to hear from Capt. Daniel Andrews, executive director of Captains for Clean Water, on this episode of Tom Rowland’s podcast over at The Saltwater Experience. We’re going back into their archives just a bit, but Dan lays out all the facts on the ongoing fight for better fish habitat in the Everglades.
If you rock a #keepitpublic bumper sticker…
This episode of the MeatEater Podcast, featuring TRCP’s Joel Webster and onX founder Eric Siegfried, is a no-brainer. Learn more about the 9.52 million acres of public lands you own but can’t use.
If you are ready to get schooled on the deer disease that is changing the way we hunt…
Tune into this episode of Hunt Talk Radio, where Randy Newberg is joined by Kelly Straka of Michigan DNR and Krysten Schuler of Cornell University, two hunters who know way more about chronic wasting disease than you do.
If you’re contemplating a career shift to make more of a difference…
Set aside just half an hour for this episode of the Itinerant Angler podcast to hear about Robert Ramsay’s journey from local fishing guide to leader of a conservation organization that is trying to secure dedicated funding for land and water stewardship in Georgia.
If you’re about to drop some serious money on gear…
This three-hour episode of Beyond the Kill is worth putting on in the background as you surf the web for a whole new setup. Host Adam Janke interviews the extremely knowledgeable Jared Frasier, executive director of 2% for Conservation, a non-profit that urges outdoor brands to give at least 1% of their time and 1% of their profits to conservation. Janke calls this the best episode of the year (and possibly the longest episode ever.)
A recent flurry of energy leasing in and around critical big game habitats may limit options for conserving the West’s iconic big game populations
Fall is in the air, sportsmen and women clad in camouflage and blaze orange are hitting their favorite haunts, and animals are on the move! Soon, winter will be upon us, and for that reason, mule deer, pronghorn and elk are scarfing up every bit of energy-rich forage they can find. These animals must build fat reserves to survive the colder months ahead, and, for many Western big game herds, this means long journeys to access the very best-available food.
As we all know, our public lands are managed for multiple uses – grazing, recreation, wildlife habitat, and energy development, to name a few. While these different uses can, generally speaking, be compatible with one another, striking that critical balance requires that land managers give careful consideration to avoiding potential conflicts, particularly if one use may cause irreparably harm to another resource. And this is just the case when it comes to managing for the conservation of migratory big game animals.
Unfortunately, recent policy directives issued by the Department of Interior on energy dominance and big game habitat conservation may be developing into just such a scenario. Here’s why, and how it can be avoided:
On the Move – But Not Too Fast
Big game animals can live in remote and harsh areas in the West, but only if they can move freely across the landscape at key times of the year to access nutritious food. Emerging science and new technologies have pinpointed actual, well-defined corridors traveled by animals during these migrations and measured how much time they spend in certain places along the way. We now know that, like migrating waterfowl and songbirds, big game animals utilize what are called stopover habitats, where animals spend more time – sometimes several days or even weeks – during their spring and fall movements. These vital areas offer food as well as security both from the elements and from predators, of the two- and four- legged varieties alike.
Recent studies also tell us that human development in the wrong places can disrupt the normal day-to-day patterns of migrating ungulates. In Wyoming, migrating mule deer move faster through developed areas, reduce time spent in stopovers, and avoid traditional stopovers altogether where development is most intensive. Researchers in Wyoming also recently discovered that mule deer continue to avoid areas within a half-mile of well pads used in oil and natural gas drilling for more than 15 years after the development of these sites, meaning that herds don’t habituate to these disturbances. And, contrary to what some may think, big game animals don’t simply find somewhere else to go. They exhibit strong fidelity to their traditional routes, meaning they aren’t likely to abandon their known paths and preferred habitats even when they become unusable.
These behavioral changes could mean that a migrating animal eats less food and burns more energy negotiating human structures like oil pads and roads. Furthermore, researchers in Wyoming recently found that on mule deer winter ranges every 1 percent of available forage directly lost from the physical footprint of infrastructure also resulted in an additional 4.6 percent loss of forage from herd’s avoidance of well pads. Such a situation can translate into poorer animal condition, higher winter mortality, lower reproduction, and overall fewer deer for hunters to pursue. In fact, studies in Wyoming demonstrate that one particular mule deer herd declined by 36 percent during a period of development in its habitat.
The effects of development on migrating animals do vary by location. Researchers studying deer in north-west Colorado found that steep and varied topography and pinyon-juniper forest vegetation can lessen the impacts on mule deer compared to the open sagebrush ranges in Wyoming. But there is, of course, a tipping point for development in any habitat, and keeping corridors and critical winter range mostly free of infrastructure and human activity would be prudent across the West.
Although biologists have known for decades that big game animals need to migrate, what has been missing is the policy and specific guidance to land management agencies regarding the conservation of these habitats. Fortunately, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed an order last February, S.O. 3362, directing agencies to better conserve critical big game habitats like migration corridors and winter range.
Sportsmen and women lauded this policy as an encouraging first step. The order directs Interior agencies, particularly the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to assess migration corridors early in the land-use planning process and to develop site-specific management plans to conserve and restore these habitats. State wildlife agencies have submitted their top winter range and migration corridor priorities to DOI and are currently working with BLM to develop those conservation plans for each of these priorities across the West.
At the same time, DOI is also subject to Executive Order 13783, aimed at promoting the administration’s goals of energy independence and economic growth, and has ordered its agencies to advance energy development on public lands. At the end of 2017, the BLM estimated that about 26 million acres were under lease to oil and gas developers, of which about 12.8 million acres were currently producing in viable quantities. In 2018 alone, millions more acres across the western U.S. have already been offered up for leasing, many of which overlap existing migration corridors and winter range – among them some top priorities identified by state wildlife agencies, like the Red Desert-to-Hoback corridor in Wyoming.
While energy development at lower levels (generally less than 1.5 well pads per 640-acre section) may be compatible with big game use of habitats, this recent acceleration of leasing and development has created a potential impediment to successful conservation efforts. Leasing and actual development, however, aren’t the same thing, so understanding the current predicament requires a bit of knowledge about the process of leasing and development on federal lands.
In 2018 alone, millions more acres across the western U.S. have already been offered up for leasing, many of which overlap existing migration corridors and winter range…
Leasing vs. Development, and Why It Matters for Conservation
To be frank, this is a complex subject with numerous relevant statutory laws and administrative rules, as well as considerable volume of case law. But there are some basic processes and issues surrounding development that you should know.
Virtually all federal acres – unless specially designated, for example, as a wilderness area or national park – are open to exploration and nomination for leasing of minerals resources under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. By law, the BLM must offer quarterly lease sales by competitive bid wherever it has jurisdiction over federal mineral rights. Prior to any lease sale, however, the agency is legally required to allow the public the chance to file an administrative protest. In addition, the BLM can publish a list of lands under consideration for leasing and accept public comments, often giving state wildlife agencies additional opportunities for input given their special expertise.
Before sale, these agencies have several ways to see that conservation priorities, including those pertaining to S.O. 3362, are not negatively affected. They can ask for outright deferral of lease parcels that overlap migration corridors, effectively setting these parcels aside for some period of time and perhaps to be permanently withdrawn at a later date. They can also request that certain leases include protective stipulations required by the local Resource Management Plan (RMP), an underlying management framework for each of the BLM’s local administrative units, or request that the BLM add new stipulations that are more protective, such as limits to the amount of land that can be disturbed at any given time or restrictions on when particular areas of the lease can be occupied.
State agencies may also ask that the BLM add Conditions of Approval to be included in any permits to drill issued under the lease. These are mandatory requirements that can prescribe times of use for the lease, roads, or other associated facilities. Lastly, wildlife agencies can request “special lease notices” that require the purchaser of certain lease parcels to meet with the agency to discuss preferred development approaches that would minimize impacts on wildlife, such as the timing of construction or road blading.
Unlike protective stipulations, which would make the necessary conservation measures legally binding prior to the sale of a nominated lease parcel, special lease notices do not require the leaseholder to follow the state agency’s recommendations. While most operators are likely to do so, wildlife remain at considerable risk should a less-conscientious developer purchase the lease. Once the lease is sold, the purchaser has a valid and existing right to develop those minerals. If the BLM is only relying on a lease notice, the agency is left to negotiate with the operator to see that conservation priorities are safeguarded.
Even after the sale, as noted before, the purchaser and/or developer must still submit an Application for Permit to Drill (APD) before actually developing the resource. At this stage, the BLM imposes Conditions of Approval as part of the final permitting process, and a state wildlife agency can weigh in here as well. While these conditions are often specified at the time of lease issuance, opportunities to comment and propose further measures can arise at the time of permitting. Given that the leaseholder already possesses development rights, however, those Conditions of Approval cannot unreasonably impede the ability of the operator to fully develop the mineral resource – which could limit options for conservation.
Our Current Predicament
In short, once leases have been sold, the implementation of new conservation measures is dependent on the developer and the many factors that affect how mineral resources can and will be extracted.
Concurrently – yet independently – the BLM is actively leasing numerous parcels of land that overlap state priority big game winter range and migration corridors. This was true with the recent third quarter 2018 Wyoming BLM oil and gas lease sales, which saw the sale of parcels for leasing that overlap the Red Desert-to-Hoback migration corridor, a top conservation priority for state wildlife officials. An upcoming fourth quarter sale will include more parcels that overlap the same and another priority migration corridor. The same scenario is sure to unfold elsewhere in the very near future.
In short, once leases have been sold, the implementation of new conservation measures is dependent who the developer is and the many factors that affect how mineral resources can and will be extracted.
While all Western states have identified priority areas for DOI, the relevant state and federal agencies have yet to determine specific actions needed to ensure the long-term conservation and enhancement of these vital habitats. By committing to land-management decisions under the direction of aging RMPs that do not acknowledge or consider big game migration corridors, the BLM is limiting its own options and creating unnecessary conflict between energy and big game habitat directives. What’s more, this also puts the onus on state wildlife agencies, leaving them in the difficult position of requesting deferrals and other measures to conserve winter range and corridors after leasing decisions have already been made.
So, what should be done to get migration corridor conservation back on track?
Hitting the “Pause” Button and Finding Balance
Ultimately, the success of S.O. 3362 hinges on striking that critical balance between energy development and conserving big game habitats. Leasing in migration corridors and winter range, especially those identified by the states as top priorities, poses serious risk unless management plans and science-based guidance are already in place. We need to move away from reactive decision-making to more proactive approaches and better upfront planning.
It’s time to hit the “pause” button and take a step back. Sportsmen and women are not asking BLM to withdraw all areas in migration corridors permanently. Rather, we are simply asking that they defer leasing all portions of nominated parcels that overlap migration corridors and critical winter range until adequate management plans for those habitats can be developed. The BLM should continue working with state wildlife agencies to finalize action plans for the conservation and enhancement of individual migration corridors, and integrate those conservation objectives into appropriate BLM RMPs.
Consultation with governors and wildlife agencies in each Western state will be key to ensuring balance among competing land uses. Recently, DOI and the state of Wyoming agreed to defer about 5,000 acres of lease parcels that encompassed the Red Desert-to-Hoback corridor – a move applauded by the sporting and conservation communities. However, there are still several thousand acres that remain on the lease sale block with only special lease notices attached.
Such a situation calls into question whether migration corridors and winter range indeed will be balanced with energy development and whether these habitats will remain functional for the long-term survival and health of our Western big game herds. All could be well and good for big game in most or all of these leased acres, but once the leases are sold that all depends on the developer and their willingness to cooperate while also exercising their mineral rights.
Mr. Zinke’s initiative on big game migration corridors and seasonal habitat could clearly be a model for federal policy being shaped by the best-available science. We see this as a critical issue for the future of wildlife and hunting, and we applaud the leadership on this issue demonstrated by S.O. 3362. To see it through, however, we need to keep all options open for striking the balance needed to maintain the biological integrity and functionality of the Wests’ great wildlife migrations.
Top photo courtesy: BLM Wyoming
HOW YOU CAN HELP
WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?
The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.