Learning the Language of Fisheries

Atlantic bluefin tuna

Atlantic bluefin tuna, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

When I was a senior in high school, my German class trekked into Manhattan to attend a play based on the Franz Kafka novel, Der Prozess.

I didn’t have a clue about what was going on. Kafka’s work can be difficult enough to understand, even in translation. I had been taking high-school German for less than two years; my vocabulary was far too limited to follow the action on stage.

I suspect that many fishermen experience something similar when they attend a management meeting.

They’ll hear the scientists talking about “biomass,” “spawning potential ratios” and “fishing mortality thresholds,” and struggle to understand what’s going on. When agency staffers join in, and start referring to “rebuilding deadlines,” “frameworks” and the “scoping process,” they might just toss in the towel and go home, believing the process to be too arcane to comprehend.

That’s unfortunate, because their input is needed. Fishery management, like any other activity, relies on a unique vocabulary, words that precisely express concepts needed to make the management process work. To understand fishery management, a fisherman must understand that vocabulary, along with some basic fishery management principles.

The best place to start is with Understanding Fisheries Management, a guide prepared by the Auburn University Marine Extension & Research Center and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Legal Program.

Understanding Fisheries Management is somewhat dated. It does not address any changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) that were made after 1996. Even so, it remains the clearest guide to the language and process of fishery management process that is readily available to fishermen.

Fishermen need such a guide, and they need to become better informed if they are to provide meaningful input to fishery managers. Because so many are not better informed, the same comments and criticisms always arise at fisheries meetings, no matter where they are held or what species are involved:

“How do you count recreational catch? I don’t believe your numbers, because I’ve been fishing for forty years, you never counted mine.”

“How can the scientists really know how many fish are out there?”

“The fish aren’t getter scarcer; it just takes a fisherman to know where to find them.”

“There are more fish out there, but recruitment isn’t increasing. The population must be as big as it can get, so we don’t need more rules.”

By reading Understanding Fisheries Management, fishermen could find answers to many of their questions, and shed many of their misconceptions, before they ever enter a meeting room.

Still, it’s impossible to learn everything about the management process from a 50-page booklet. Those who want to become seriously involved in fisheries issues, as well as those who merely want a better idea of how the management process works, ought to dive in a little deeper, to expand their knowledge beyond the basics.

The same general principles of limiting harvest to sustainable levels and maintaining or, if necessary, restoring healthy fish stocks are equally applicable to both commercial and recreational fishermen, but the methods used to estimate commercial and recreational catch are sharply different.

Commercial fishermen in federal fisheries, and in most state fisheries as well, are required to report their landings within a very short time after returning to port. The fish houses that buy their catch are often also required to file independent reports that corroborate, or sometimes question, the fishermen’s filings. Thus, commercial landings estimates are generally both accurate and timely.

Things aren’t that neat in the recreational fishery. There are far more recreational anglers than commercial fishermen, they sail out of far more ports, and they normally have no reporting requirements. Even when mandatory requirements are imposed, they are often ignored.

People working for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Highly Migratory Species office have told me that only about 20% of recreational Atlantic bluefin tuna landings are reported, a figure that has been confirmed by other writers. Yet that 20% reporting level, while disconcertingly low, dwarfs reporting compliance in Alabama’s recreational red snapper fishery, where a mere 7% of anglers reported their catch during the 2016 state season.

Fishery managers, unable to depend on anglers to consistently and reliably report their catch, must rely on an angler survey to estimate landings. The accuracy of such surveys, including the current Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), are consistently questioned at fishery meetings, as anglers predictably claim that regulations are too strict because MRIP consistently overestimates anglers’ catch.

Most of the fishermen making such comments have no knowledge of how MRIP works, and it is that lack of knowledge that gives rise to their criticism. They owe it to themselves to read the Marine Recreational Information Program Data User Handbook (Handbook), available online.

There, they would learn that “The size of sampling error depends upon the sample size, the sample design and the natural variability within the population. As a general rule, increasing the sample size reduces the sampling error.” That might help them realize that when fishermen ask managers to adopt regulations that differ from state to state, and from month to month within the waters of a single state, they are increasing the likelihood of error. That in turn, could lead to the understanding that many inaccuracies that do appear in the data are not the fault of MRIP, but of the fishermen themselves, for seeking regulations that inject greater uncertainty into the system.

The Handbook also provides information on how MRIP is structured, how survey locations are selected, and why relatively small samples can provide reliable catch estimates for the entire coast, all topics that frequently cause confusion when anglers address management issues.

Yet MRIP is only a very small part of fisheries management, and comprehending the rest of the process requires a bit of work. I regularly buy various texts, used to teach college and graduate-school courses, when they become available on outlets such as ebay.com, in an effort to gain a greater understanding of the science side of the process. They’re not easy reading, and I’ll be the first to admit that some of the math presented is well beyond me, but it’s not necessary to solve the equations to get a better understanding of how the process works.

For those looking for their first book on the management process, I recommend Marine Fisheries Ecology, by Simon Jennings, Michel J. Kaiser and John D. Reynolds. While not the most recent work in its field, the text is easy to read, and provides a broad survey of the topic, including socioeconomic issues, surveys, fishing gear, fish biology, stock assessments and related matters.

Marine Fisheries Ecology casts light on the survey processes used to estimate the size of fish stocks. In addressing the error that inevitably affects any estimate, the text notes that “the precision needed is generally better than [plus or minus] 20% rather than an order of magnitude,” and explains that greater precision, while theoretically desirable, is often not a practical goal due to the level of labor and expense involved, because “the reduction in error is proportional to the square root of sample size, meaning that a fourfold increase in sample size is necessary to reduce the error by half.”

Thus, it teaches that when fishermen ask, “How can scientists know exactly how many fish are out there?” the answer is that “They don’t know, exactly, but they can come reasonably close. And that’s why they need to be cautious; stocks might be smaller than they believe.”

It also explains why trawl surveys often reveal a depleted population even when fishermen are still landing large numbers of fish, noting that “fishers target ‘hot spots’ where abundance remains high regardless of overall stock size,” while biologists sample a larger and more randomly selected expanse of ocean that provides a more accurate estimate of fish abundance.

Marine Fisheries Ecology gives readers similar insights across a broad spectrum of management measures.

For more technical information on fisheries management, my go-to reference is Fisheries Ecology and Management, by Carl J. Walters and Steven J.D. Martell. It’s more advanced than Marine Fisheries Ecology, and places a lot of emphasis on various forms of population modeling and its relation to fisheries management strategies. I won’t say that it’s an easy read, but the text is readily understandable with a little effort.

Because Fisheries Ecology and Management places such emphasis on modeling approaches, it also serves to dispel many of the false notions that fishermen hold with respect to how fish populations respond to various conditions.

It makes it clear that in the case of most species, under most conditions, spawning success is not directly linked to the size of the spawning stock. Instead, “spawning stock is generally a very poor predictor of recruitment (recruitment being independent of parental abundance) except at relatively low parental stock sizes,” because juvenile survival is usually “strongly density-dependent (there is a decrease in juvenile survival with increasing abundance) despite the fact that the net resultant recruitment is independent of parental abundance.” In other words, juvenile survival is usually higher when the initial size of the year class is small, and lower when the year class is large.

If fishermen, and those who write about management issues in the angling press, had a better grasp of that basic principle, summer flounder managers might have been spared a lot of criticism from those who have claimed that the current size limits remove too many females from the spawning stock, and so limit spawning success.

And that’s why gaining an understanding of the language and principles of fishery management can be so important to anglers. Reading a few books won’t make you a biologist, any more than watching a few reruns of This Old House or New Yankee Workshop will make you a master finish carpenter. It takes years of intense training, and then years of working out in the world, to do that.

But it will, at least, give you enough background to speak intelligently to fisheries managers, know what questions to ask, and to understand their replies.

And perhaps more important, it will let you know when a writer, an organization, or another fisherman begins promoting an agenda that just makes no sense.

For that reason alone, learning the language and the process can be a good thing.

About Charles Witek

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

1 comment on “Learning the Language of Fisheries

  1. We are all for educating as much of the public as we can about our natural aquatic resources. If more people understood the issues and the languages and terminology used, the might be more inclined to help out as well. Thanks for sharing.

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