‘Alternative Management’ of Fisheries: Can It Work?

On May 1, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) released a request for proposals “to evaluate the feasibility of developing a fishing mortality (F) based management approach to the recreational summer flounder fishery.”

Currently, summer flounder are managed with a combination of bag limits, size limits and seasons intended to constrain recreational harvest to, or below, the annual catch limit (ACL), and thus prevent overfishing. There is no coastwide consistency in the measures adopted; they regularly differ from state to state although, for regulatory purposes, some states have been combined into two- or three-state regions.

In December of each year, the MAFMC and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board (Management Board) hold a joint meeting, where estimates of the current year’s recreational harvest are compared with the ACL for the upcoming season. Depending on whether such estimate is higher, substantially lower or just slightly below the ACL, managers will either adopt more restrictive regulations, relax existing rules or leave the current regulations unchanged.

It is a system that should work in theory but, in practice, leads to regulations that fluctuate wildly from year to year. As noted by James J. Gilmore, Director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Marine Resources,

“There seems to be a poor relationship between the recreational measures (derived from calculations based on MRIP) and the performance (as estimated by MRIP). Regional summer flounder management has been in place for the last 3 years (2014-2016). During this period regulations adopted by each region have not changed…This strategy has provided regulatory stability coastwide, which we have not experienced in many years. While this stability is generally appreciated by fishermen, managers benefit as well by having an opportunity to look at how capricious harvest and harvest estimates can be. Under consistent measures there are numerous factors that may influence recreational harvest in a state, with weather and fish availability to anglers among the most important. Harvest estimates are in turn influenced by the actual magnitude of harvest and the variability inherent in a survey (catch sampling and the subsequent catch expansion). Under 3 years of consistent regulation from 2014-2016, coastwide harvest estimates in numbers of fish have ranged from 1.6-2.5 million fish, varying as much as 50% between years. When we consider a smaller geographic scale, this variability increases to 66% between years in the CT-NJ region, and an average of 133% at the individual state level. It is difficult to say how much of this variability is due to estimation vs. actual harvest magnitude.”

Such fluctuations in landings estimates make it very difficult to craft regulations that protect the stock from overfishing while still providing anglers a reasonable opportunity to enjoy the summer flounder resource.

For the past few years, elements within the angling community have suggested that “by managing the recreational sector based on harvest rate as opposed to a poundage-based quota, managers have been able to provide predictability in regulations while also maintaining a healthy population.” The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) striped bass management program is often cited as a successful example of such an approach.

MAFMC seems to be buying into that argument, for in its request for proposals, it said that

“An F-based recreational fishery management approach to similar to [sic] that implemented by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic Striped Bass could be explored or used for comparison…Benchmark or update stock assessments monitor fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass trends and relationship to the established reference points. Depending upon the stock assessment results, if warranted, regulatory changes are then made to reduce fishing mortality and promote stock rebuilding.”

So exactly how would an F-based management plan work? And could such an approach work for summer flounder?

To answer those questions, one must first realize that managers are already using fishing mortality to manage summer flounder. In its report to the August 2016 meeting of the MAFMC, the Summer Flounder Monitoring Committee (Monitoring Committee) explained that more restrictive regulations were needed because “The fishing mortality rate (F) in 2015 was 0.390, 26% above the fishing mortality reference point FMSYPROXY=F35%=0.309.”

In fact, the three ways of calculating landings—fishing mortality, poundage and numbers of fish—are all more or less interchangeable. Applying the target fishing mortality rate to the biomass results in a hard-poundage quota; dividing that poundage-based quota by the average weight of the fish caught provides a quota based on numbers of fish. In the end, they’re merely three different terms that describe the same amount of dead fish.

Thus, when MAFMC, and some of the angling community, talk about “F-based” management, what they’re really talking about is a different way of calculating recreational landings. Instead of using the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) to determine annual landings, an F-based approach derives an estimate of recreational removals from a stock assessment.

Such an approach has both benefits and drawbacks.

There is little doubt that an F-based approach would lead to more accurate estimates of recreational harvest. In the current system, MRIP estimates provide the sole gauge of recreational harvest; in an “F-based” system, MRIP estimates would be only one data source among an array of fishery-dependent and fishery-independent surveys used to calculate the health of the stock.

On the other hand, an F-based management system depends on expensive, time-consuming stock assessments. The stock assessment update used to establish 2017 summer flounder regulations was based on data collected through the end of 2015. Managers augmented that update with more recent commercial landings information and MRIP-based estimates to determine how the stock fared in 2016.

In the sort of F-based management system being contemplated by the MAFMC, the MRIP-based estimates would not determine the next year’s regulations; instead, any changes would depend on stock assessments using data that is, at best, a year old, and potentially much older if the assessment isn’t updated on an annual basis.

That’s probably fine when dealing with a fully-rebuilt stock, as a single year of modest overharvest—perhaps even a couple of consecutive years—is unlikely to do significant harm to the population. However, in the case of summer flounder, we’re dealing with a population that, according to MAFMC’s Science and Statistics Committee, “is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not taken.”

When dealing with a stock in that kind of condition, which has already suffered from six consecutive years of below-average spawning success, such stock could easily become overfished by the time that managers, dependent solely on a stock assessment, discovered that overfishing was taking place.

Striped bass, although often touted as a good example of why F-based management works, actually illustrate why such an approach is beset with problems.

About a decade ago, the striped bass found itself in a situation very similar to that now facing summer flounder. Spawning success was below average in four out of the five years between 2006 and 2010. In response, the spawning stock biomass fell from around 78,000 metric tons (mt) in 2003 to approximately 58.2 mt in 2012, just above the 57.6 mt threshold that defines an overfished stock.

Fishery managers’ response to the striped bass decline was very different from their response to summer flounder. In the case of summer flounder, when landings exceeded poundage-based catch limits, recreational regulations were immediately changed in an effort to reduce harvest to sustainable levels.

In the case of striped bass, anglers began expressing concerns for the health of the striped bass stock around 2007, but since there was no poundage-based annual catch limit in place, managers didn’t even consider any remedial action until a 2011 assessment update warned that “Female [spawning stock biomass] will fall slightly below the threshold by 2017.” At that point, the stock would be deemed “overfished,” yet ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board ultimately decided to take no immediate action, because overfishing was not yet occurring and the spawning stock biomass was not yet overfished.

So the decline continued. Action was finally taken when a new benchmark assessment was released in 2013, but even then, regulations intended to address the stock’s problems were not put in place until 2015.

Today, the spawning stock biomass remains a mere 1,200 mt above the threshold denoting an overfished stock, and 13,000 mt below its target. Had striped bass been managed with a poundage-based annual catch limit, the regulations needed to halt the stock’s decline could have been adopted much sooner, and the striped bass spawning stock probably would be in much better condition.

Thus, both anglers and fishery managers would be wise to view any proposal to abandon annual catch limits for summer flounder with skepticism, and question whether any F-based management program can react quickly enough to detect and respond to further populations declines in the stock.

They should also be leery of H.R. 2023, the so-called Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, which explicitly provides for the use of “alternative fishery management measures” in recreational fisheries. As the MAFMC’s recent request for proposals illustrates, current federal fisheries law already allows for F-based management measures, but such measures must be “consistent with and [meet] the Council’s requirements to implement Annual Catch Limits (ACLs) and Accountability Measures (AMs) as mandated under the Magnuson Stevens Act.”

H.R. 2023 could eliminate such requirements, and permit the use of alternative management measures with no reference to ACLs or accountability measures at all.

Could such alternative management measures work for summer flounder?

Perhaps, if the stock was at or above target levels, and managers continued to update the assessment annually, so that they could catch any change in stock status in a reasonably timely manner.

But given that the summer flounder stock is now at real risk of becoming overfished, the delays inherent in an F-based system make it more likely that abundance could slip beneath the threshold before anyone realized that overfishing remained a problem. That makes abandoning a hard-poundage catch limit a bad idea at this time.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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