To Speed Blindly Into The Unknown

Navigating in fog

I grew up in the southwest corner of New England’s coast, where fog was hardly unknown. I learned how to operate a boat in pea soup conditions when I was still a boy.

Running a boat in the fog can be an eerie, disorienting experience. You are surrounded by soggy gray walls that display a constantly shifting pattern of light and dark patches. Your eyes keep trying to make sense of it all, trying to convince you that every shadow is an island, a bridge or another vessel looming out of the murk. With visibility reduced to a few dozen yards, sometimes to a few dozen feet, all perspective is lost; a floating beer can might be mistaken for a buoy, and a barely-submerged reef may remain undetected until it’s too close to avoid.

One of the first things that I learned was that, under such conditions, you have to go slowly, to give yourself enough time to spot any hazards and, if other boats are nearby, to give them time to spot and avoid you.

Moving ahead carefully, when you’re not sure what’s ahead, might not get you to your destination as quickly as you would like, but it gets you there far more quickly—and more surely—than a reckless speed that results in collision, or that causes you to run hard upon a hidden shoal.

Slowing down and making sure that you know just where you are and where you are going is a hallmark of prudent navigation when the way ahead is obscured.

Managing data-poor fisheries can also be disorienting. Signals are mixed. Fishermen might be finding a lot more fish than the biologists’ surveys are. Spawning stock biomass might seem fairly high, while young-of-the-year fish counts stay low. Unusual environmental conditions might lead to below-average spawning success, or cause a stock to produce an unusually high year class. Without reliable data relating to a species’ life history, its reproduction and historic abundance, biologists lack the perspective to evaluate the current health of the stock.

Fishermen will tell them that “there are plenty of fish out there, you just have to know where to look,” and there is a natural desire to believe them. At the same time, their own sampling is telling them that abundance is headed downhill.

In such situations, where the data is ambiguous and the path ahead not completely clear, biologists are as unsure of their position as any navigator locked in a fog bank. And they ultimately have the same choice—move slowly and deliberately, and give themselves enough time and space to get out of trouble should something go wrong, or race ahead, increase harvest, and risk wrecking the stock due to some unknown hazard.

Thus I was dismayed when I heard Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, and tell the assembled lawmakers that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) was flawed, because “when scientific information is poor or unreliable for a stock, setting the annual catch limiting [sic] is done with a considerable amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to precaution which can result in a significant downward adjustment to an annual catch limit.”

His language suggests that fishery managers should use best-case assumptions when data is weak, setting catch limits high regardless of any uncertainties that might exist; it’s the biological equivalent of running full-speed into a fog bank, trusting that all will be well.

There’s not a better way to crash and sink a boat—or a fish population.

Black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic region provide a good example of how the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), acting pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens, can prudently manage a fishery and maximize angling opportunity when the available data is poor.

Both anecdotal evidence and NMFS’ trawl surveys suggested that the population was increasing. However, a benchmark stock assessment completed in 2012 failed to pass peer review, with all three of the panel members agreeing that such assessment was not adequate for management purposes. While managers believed that the stock was neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, they were left with little guidance on what actions to take in the future.

Faced with such uncertainty, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) opted to make no changes to the annual catch limits for 2014.

Fishermen, who were seeing more black sea bass, were extremely critical of the decision not to increase the annual catch limits. The Jersey Coast Anglers’ Association complained that managers were unnecessarily restricting harvest on a species so abundant that it was “now considered by many to be the new nuisance fish.”

Fishery managers searched for ways to address the data deficit before the next benchmark stock assessment could be prepared. In 2015, a team of biologists developed a new approach to setting annual catch limits for data-poor stocks. Thanks to such approach, the MAFMC could safely recommend increasing the allowable biological catch (ABC) by more than 20%, from 5.50 to 6.67 million pounds.

In 2017, after a new benchmark assessment passed peer review and was deemed adequate for management, the ABC was increased again, by more than 50%. The recreational annual catch limit was increased by 52% as a result.

Thus, between 2013 and 2017, prudent management allowed the black sea bass ABC to nearly double, from 5.50 to 10.47 million pounds and, between 2013 and 2016, allowed recreational black sea bass landings to more than double, from 2.45 to 5.19 million pounds (as anglers regularly overfished their quota). Abundance is more than twice the target level, making the species an attractive and readily available alternative as the summer flounder population declines due to poor recruitment.

Despite this, those seeking to weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens still refer to black sea bass as a “problem” fishery, that can only be fixed by amending the law.

It’s a strange proposition.

For it might have been possible to ignore the uncertainties, and increase sea bass landings a few years ago, without doing harm to the stock.

Just as it might be possible to speed across a fogbound bay, without running into another boat, reef or bar.

But should anyone bet the future on “might,” when they can slow down a bit and be sure?

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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