Unreasonable Access

Charles Witek

People who attempt to push controversial measures through Congress aren’t fans of straight talk.

They rarely set out their goals in plain black-and-white language, preferring words likely to appeal to the public while cloaking their true intent. And then they garnish those words with assurances that their efforts are “reasonable” and merely “common sense.”

Recent legislation, which would exempt some banks from rules prohibiting the sort of excessive risk-taking that led to the 2008 financial crisis, has been named the “Community Bank Sensible Regulation Act of 2015.”

Some of the most vehement opponents of private firearms ownership employ terms such as “gun sense” while calling for “common sense, gun-safety laws” that would significantly change the status quo.

In fisheries debates, we see the same thing, as organizations seeking to weaken federal fisheries laws and legalize overfishing talk about improving “access” or, quite often, “reasonable access” to marine resources.

Right now, in the Mid-Atlantic, we’re seeing such language applied to summer flounder.

Summer flounder support one of the most important recreational fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic region. According to NOAA Fisheries’ landings data, anglers landed more than 6,000,000 pounds of summer flounder in the Mid-Atlantic last year, an amount second only to landings of striped bass.

The agency’s effort data estimates that Mid-Atlantic anglers made over 3.6 million trips targeting summer flounder last year (that doesn’t count trips on which flounder were caught as secondary targets or by accident on trips not targeting them at all).

Landings and effort data certainly makes it appear that anglers had “reasonable access” to the fishery.

However, there are those who disagree.

That became particularly apparent last month, after Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council staff issued a memorandum that suggested that next year’s summer flounder landings limit be reduced by 43%.

The reason for such reduction seemed perfectly reasonable; between 2010 and 2013, the number of new summer flounder entering the population was well below average. In order to maintain a healthy flounder stock in the face of such poor recruitment, harvest must be reduced until recruitment, and the spawning stock biomass, recovers a bit.

However, members of the fishing industry oppose any reduction, no matter how justified it may be. Thus, in The Fisherman magazine, we see the comment

“In response to this grim forecast, managers, scientists and fishing advocates have been meeting regularly on the subject in an effort to stave off any dire cutbacks. The latest word from management circles is something more in the neighborhood of a 23% reduction in harvest for both sectors (commercial and recreational) starting in 2016. While a 23% loss is far better than 43%, annual reductions are adding up for fluke fishermen along the Atlantic Coast, with angler access sharply reduced and the plight of our local industry once again in the spotlight. [emphasis added]”

But in this context, just what does “angler access” mean?

There have been no marine sanctuaries or no-take marine protected areas created in the region, so anglers still have full access to fishing waters.

Season lengths have changed from what they were in the past, with some states’ getting longer and other states’ getting shorter. Overall, it’s difficult to say that the length of time that anglers may legally access the fish has changed very much.

Thus, in The Fisherman article and in the broader debate over fisheries regulation, “angler access” has been redefined. Anglers have “access” if harvest remains high, even if overfishing occurs, and they “lose access” if regulations, however necessary, reduce landings.

Such language is intended to evoke an emotional reaction. Tell anglers that summer flounder regulations are going to be a little more restrictive next year because of four consecutive below-average spawns, and most will probably say, “That makes sense.”

But tell anglers that “They’re taking away your access to summer flounder!” and their reaction is likely to be very different, involving a different part of their brains.

However, the use of the word “access” to connote “overfishing” is even more common in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, where an effort to perpetuate overfishing threatens the very foundation of federal fisheries management, the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Not too many years ago, the Gulf red snapper stock was badly overfished. However, federal fishery managers adopted a rigorous, science-based management plan, and rationalized the commercial fishery by adopting a catch share-based quota system. As a result, the commercial fishery hasn’t overfished its quota in nearly a decade, and the red snapper stock is rebuilding nicely.

However, the recreational fishery remains a problem, largely because federal rules don’t apply within state waters. States can and do adopt regulations far less restrictive than the federal rules, which are completely without scientific support. The worst in that regard is Texas, which has no closed season at all; it allows anglers to retain four red snapper per day, twice the federal limit, and its fifteen-inch minimum size is an inch shorter than the federal minimum.

Because federal fisheries managers must consider the entire red snapper stock, which includes fish caught in state waters, when they set federal regulations, the overly-permissive state rules result in federal regulations that are far more restrictive than they would otherwise be.

Angling industry representatives have publicly blamed the federal government, not the states, for the restrictive federal rules. They have thus convinced Gulf-region congressmen to introduce legislation that would overthrow the science-based management regime employed by federal red snapper managers, and replace it with the politically-motivated, scientifically unsound state regulations.

And they would do it all in the name of “access.”

A quote by Jeff Angers, president of the misnamed Center for Coastal Conservation, an umbrella organization representing a number of industry groups, summed up that effort when he said that such legislation “will better conserve Gulf red snapper and finally give recreational anglers reasonable access to red snapper fishing. [emphasis added]”

As Angers’ organization sees it, politically-driven state regulations would have a “better” conservation impact on red snapper than the current, science-based regulations that are already successfully rebuilding the stock.

Such state regulations would give anglers “reasonable access” by allowing them to kill many more red snapper than the science-based rules would permit, and significantly exceed the overfishing threshold.

Maybe overfishing fish stocks and placing their recoveries in jeopardy seems reasonable to the industry spokesmen on the Gulf and East Coasts. But overfishing is never reasonable, and allowing it under the rubric of “reasonable access” may be the most unreasonable act of all.

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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