Managing Fish? Show Us The Numbers

Speckled Trout Fishing

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.

Speckled trout photo via Wikipedia

About Charles Witek

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

4 comments on “Managing Fish? Show Us The Numbers

  1. It’s important to a federal management however I wish they would have better data . Certain species such as summer flounder and black Sea bass are good examples. Black Sea bass is 230% over the target biomass but still have regulations that restrict their catch. Summer Flounder regulations are set by noaa using their own trawl boat when better information could be gathered by hiring the commercial trawlers that actually fish for that species. Noaa does not take into account the damage it causes the for hire fleet when they have certain closures. The once triving industry of head boats is now down to a few boats in each port and in some ports none. It would be better if they take these things into account.

    • We all would like to see better data, which is going to require better funding, something hard to come by in the current political environment. However, I’d like to share some thoughts about the two examples you give, of where data could be better.

      Historically, black sea bass has been a data-poor species. However the stock assessment completed a little over a year ago made some real breakthroughs, and managers finally have some good science to support their decisions. That’s how we know that the population rose to more than twice the target level (although it has begun to decline as the 2011 year class is removed from the population). There are a lot of black sea bass out there. I fish for them quite a bit out of Fire Island Inlet (Long Island, New York), and I sometimes see stacks of sea bass that rise 40 feet above the wrecks where I fish. But abundance is only hald of the picture. We have to look at what people are catching, too.

      Because black sea bass are easy to catch right now, a lot of people are targeting them. There is quite a bit of effort shift away from fluke, which are declining in abundance as a result of low recruitment (poor spawning success) and into the black sea bass fishery. You can see that in the catch figures from New Jersey where, because the size limit is only 12 1/2 inches, legal black sea bass are easy to find. In 2016, New Jersey anglers fishing between the months of March and October took home an estimated 211,066 black sea bass. In 2017, for the same 8-month period (I’m not including November and December for either year, because estimates for the last two months of 2017 aren’t yet available), New Jersey anglers took home an estimated 718,374 black sea bass, about 340% of the 2016 landings. When harvest increases at a faster rate (340%) than the population does (230%), regulations are going to have to be restrictive in order to prevent overfishing.

      Fish, in the end, work no differently than a bank account. You can have $10 million in the bank, and feel that you’re pretty well off, but if you spend $11 million, you’re still on your way to Bankruptcy Court.

      Our New York black sea bass fishery shows another sign that the fish are being hit pretty hard. In years past, when our bag limit was 8 fish and the size limit was similar to New Jersey’s, it often took me longer to run out to the wreck than it did to catch a picked limit of sea bass–nothing under 15 or 16 inches, with the big fish around 4 pounds or so. The current abundance of black sea bass is largely being driven by the huge 2011 year class, which might have been the largest ever recorded (although there are signs that the 2015 year class is pretty big, too). Right now, given the size of the 2011 year class, it should be very easy to go out and catch the three, 15-inch fish that New York anglers can currently take home. But that isn’t the case; instead, I’m working harder and fishing longer to catch 3 legal fish now than I did to catch 8 quality fish a few years ago, and I didn’t have a black sea bass over 4 pounds all of last year. I’m catching plenty of shorts, but not many large fish, even after switching from bait to jigs to keep most of the smaller fish away. When the large fish start disappearing, even thought a big year class should be providing plenty of them, it’s a sign that fishermen are hitting the population fairly hard.

      As far as summer flounder go, I’ve heard other folks say the same thing that you wrote about the difference between commercial and scientific gear. But that argument misses a critical point. Commercial gear is designed to maximize harvest, while scientific gear isn’t intended to catch the most fish possible, only to get a consistent sample that can be used to create an index of abundance. So if commercial gear catches–and I’m making this number up off the top of my head, just for the sake of example–75% of the summer flounder, while the scientific gear only catches 10%, that doesn’t mean that the scientific sample is inaccurate. So long as the scientific gear catches a consistent 10%, whether the total biomass is 20 million pounds, 100 million pounds or somewhere in between, scientists will be able to construct an abundance index which shows whether the stock is getting larger or smaller, because the scientific sample will get larger or smaller in response. We always have to remember that scientific sampling is about consistency, not about catching the most fish possible, and also that catching the most fish possible isn’t necessary to provide a good scientific sample.

    • “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.”
      The above quote speaks volumes about the jibberish boat-owning snapper fishermen claim as the reason for states to manage snapper. It’s comparing apples (snapper) to oranges (trout). Trout, flounder, etc are all inshore fish. Snapper is an offshore, deep-sea fish. State management of snapper in state water is actually NO MANAGEMENT because they allow year-round fishing for snapper. And worse, they allow twice as many for the daily bag limit. This also allows cheating, with fishermen claiming they caught their snapper in “state waters”, with a (wink-wink).

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