One of the hottest issues in saltwater fisheries management is who—state or federal agencies—should have the power to manage the fish.
Federal fishery managers have a record of success. In 2000, 92 federally-managed stocks were overfished and 72 were subject to overfishing. By the end of 2016, thanks to the efforts of federal managers, only 38 stocks were still overfished and just 30 were subject to overfishing. Forty-one once-overfished stocks have been completely rebuilt.
However, such success hasn’t shielded federal fisheries managers from criticism.
The Center for Sportfishing Policy (Center) has complained that “current federal fisheries law is disenfranchising America’s recreational anglers,” and alleges that “Through their highly successful management of species like red drum, speckled trout, snook and numerous others, the states have demonstrated that they can successfully manage fisheries for both sustainability and access.”
“Access,” as that word is used by the Center, means less restrictive regulations that allow larger harvests.
A group of eight boating industry, angling industry and anglers’ rights organizations claimed that “The states have an outstanding track record of successful fisheries management, as evidenced by the numerous economically important and biologically sustainable fish stocks that are under state management, including red drum, speckled trout, snook and many others.”
But while it’s easy to say that species such as red drum and speckled trout are being well-managed by the various states, there is little or no hard data that supports such claims.
Federal fishery management, on the other hand, is data-driven.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) says that stocks must be managed for “optimum” yield, which is “prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social or ecological factor.” A stock is “overfished,” and “overfishing” is occurring, if there is “a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.”
Thus, if fishing mortality is too high to assure the stock’s continuing ability to produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), or if a fish’s abundance has fallen too low to produce MSY, federal managers are legally obligated to reduce fishing mortality and/or rebuild the stock. By definition, an overfished stock or one experiencing overfishing cannot be considered either well-managed or healthy.
State managers rarely employ such a clear set of standards. That makes it easy to claim that state-managed stocks are in good shape, as such claims are based on mere opinion, not on hard data.
Except that, at times, some data is there. That’s the case with both red drum and speckled trout, two species that are near the top of the list of fish caught, and of fish harvested, by anglers in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Center, and others, would have us believe that both are successfully managed, but the data tells us something else.
In the case of red drum, the most recent release of “Fisheries of the United States,” an annual report issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, notes that “Annual catch…has varied between 4.9 million fish and nearly 12 million fish over the last ten years, with an average catch of almost 8.7 million fish per year.” However, the 4.9 million drum caught in 2016 represented the lowest catch of the ten-year time series; it was even far lower than the catch in 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill limited fishing activity in a large portion of the Gulf.
Such declining catch numbers are usually a sign of declining fish abundance, and the need for more stringent management measures.
The red drum found off the Texas coast seem to be in a particularly bad condition. There, state fishery managers have apparently allowed recreational red drum harvest to rise to an unsustainable level, and so have had to resort to large fish hatcheries and artificially spawned fish to “ensure that [such] harvest levels are sustained and stocks are replenished.”
Reliance on such hatcheries is a tacit admission that the state does not maintain a healthy, self-sustaining red drum population, and directly contradicts the Center’s assertion that the states “can successfully manage fisheries for both sustainability and access.”
Speckled trout provide similar evidence of ineffective state management.
In Texas, speckled trout numbers and harvest levels are also propped up with hatchery fish. Elsewhere, populations are showing the effects of too much recreational “access” and too little regulation.
In 2001, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission released “The Spotted Seatrout Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico, United States: A Regional Management Plan.” It notes that various states have adopted conservation targets for speckled trout that range from an 18% spawning potential ratio (SPR) in Louisiana to a 35% SPR in Florida (SPR reflects the spawning potential of a fish population, when compared to the spawning potential of an unfished stock).
However, it’s not clear that such conservation targets mean much to some state fisheries managers.
Between 1981 and 2016, Louisiana saw speckled trout SPR drop as low as 8.7, with a median value of just 11 (in 2016, the SPR was 10), yet managers took no action to rebuild the stock to the conservation target. One Louisiana biologist noted, “The current limits, biologically speaking, are designed to maximize angler yield while not putting the stock into a condition where we may see recruitment overfishing.” He noted that state managers “walk the tightrope between getting full public use out of a renewable resource and harming a fishery.”
What constitutes “harming a fishery” is, like so many aspects of state management, a subjective judgment. While Louisiana claims to avoid “recruitment overfishing,” which occurs when too few fish are produced to replace those that fishermen remove from the population, anglers’ complaints about a dearth of larger fish suggest that Louisiana’s liberal size and bag limits—anglers may take home 25 speckled trout at least 12 inches long each day—have led to growth overfishing, which is described in the Sea Grant booklet “Understanding Fisheries Management” as what “occurs when the bulk of the harvest is made up of small fish that could have been significantly larger if they survived to an older age.”
Such growth overfishing, and the loss of bigger fish, is a threat to the stock because older fish tend to produce larger, more viable offspring. In addition, a population of older fish buffers the stock against consecutive years of poor reproduction; a lack of older, larger fish can place the population at a much greater risk of collapse.
Thus, the question of whether state or federal fishery management is “better” comes down to a question of values, not of data.
Those who prefer management measures that “are designed to maximize angler yield” and “walk the tightrope between full public use out of a renewable resource and harming a fishery,” will prefer to see fish managed by the states, which are not legally obligated to prevent overfishing or rebuild depleted fish stocks, and are not compelled to base management decisions solely on the health of fish stocks.
As Paul Diodati, the former director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries observed, with respect to striped bass, “The interstate fisheries management program [overseen by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission] does not reward a state or offer incentives for taking proactive conservation actions.”
On the other hand, those who are willing to forego a little bit of current yield to better assure that fish stocks will remain abundant well into the future will prefer the data-driven federal management system, which offers clear criteria that managers must use when evaluating stock health, and is under a legal obligation to prevent overfishing and promptly rebuild depleted populations.
As a sportsman, I have no doubt that such federal management, built on a dispassionate lattice of data, provides us with the best chance of meeting our greatest obligation: passing on to today’s children, and to generations yet unborn, healthy and abundant fish stocks, so that they, too, may know all of the joys that flow from the sea.