Fisheries Conservation & Data Collection: The Way Forward

Emily Helmick

A Florida native and niece of a well-known tournament boat builder, I grew up fishing with some of the best in the business. As a soon-to-be mom of the son of a commercial fisherman, it thrills me to know that my son will grow up experiencing all our local waters have to offer — fishing in particular. We’re lucky to call Jupiter, Florida, home. We are located in one of North America’s most biologically diverse areas, where abundant fisheries are a stone’s throw offshore.

Becoming a new mom has me thinking recently about what is truly important. What do I want to teach my son? How are our actions today going to affect his future? How can I make a difference for his life now? I’m sure all new parents and parents-to-be have similar thoughts, on a variety of topics. Because we spend the majority of our time in, on, and around the water, and because our livelihood depends on what the fish are doing — when, how, and where they’re biting — my thoughts usually come back to the fish. I want them to be there, in abundance, for my family and for families like ours for generations to come.

Science-Based Annual Catch Limits

I was an enthusiastic angler long before I became an advocate. Then I became a concerned angler. Declining fish populations and habitat destruction led me to work with and for a variety of conservation organizations dedicated to maintaining healthy fish populations and protecting the habitats and water quality they depend on. That work seemed as much like self-defense as it did a vocation, given all the pressure on our fisheries and the stressors on essential fish habitats.

While working on fishery management issues for the past few years, I’ve proudly watched the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) take great care to ensure that the species in our region are not overfished. Because of the mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), our region enjoys relatively healthy stocks, despite the extraordinary amount of effort by both commercial and recreational anglers, and the ongoing damages to many essential coastal and offshore habitats.

The two most important facets of the Magnuson-Stevens Act are these:

  1. The regional fishery management councils must immediately end overfishing (taking fish out of the water faster than they can reproduce) and rebuild overfished (depleted) populations to healthy levels within ten years, or as fast as biology allows.
  2. Scientists on a Science & Statistical Committee provide the regional fishery management councils a range of options regarding harvest levels, offering the councils the flexibility to set conservative, optimistic, or moderate catch limits as long as they maintain a strong breeding stock.

Not everyone agrees on where these limits should be set for each species, but the process of setting them is wonderful mix of science and democracy. The scientists are top notch, and the council members are mostly fishermen like us, appointed by the people we elected as our governors, or representatives of the respective states’ fish and wildlife agencies. After reviewing the science, they cast the votes on where to set the limits. Those options can range from many thousands to millions of pounds between the most conservative and most optimistic amounts on the table, depending upon the abundance of the species.

But what if there isn’t much or any information about a population? At present, if a species is “data poor,” the councils set a limit a little below levels of historic landings as an insurance policy against fishing effort shifting to these stocks or some kind of unpredictable havoc in the ecosystem taking a toll on them. This approach, while not perfect, provides fishermen with the opportunity to switch their effort from species to species, as seasons open and close or market demand dictates, while largely ensuring that a healthy stock is there to fish year in and year out.

Data Collection

This is the area where we must do a better job. We fish in a time when the challenges and the uncertainties have never been greater. Climate change is already throwing us curveballs. For example, fish are migrating toward colder, deeper waters in many places around the world. We’re also noticing changes in the currents spinning off the Gulf Stream. We can’t say for sure that climate change is impacting the behavior of the Stream here locally, but we can sure attest to the fact that several species such as king mackerel aren’t showing up where and when they should, in the numbers they should, despite our science-based efforts to fish them sustainably.

Meanwhile, Congress is failing American fishermen. Funding for data collection has been slashed (see “Chairman’s Perspective” in the PDF), especially for this region, which, due to the biological diversity of the tropics, subtropics, and temperate zones, boasts far more managed species than the coldwater regions that get plenty of funding to study the same fish over and over. Faced with these climatic and political realities, the smart thing to do here is to continue managing fish with the science we have, conserve those we don’t know much about, and put fishermen and scientists on the same boats.

Folks call the latter, “citizen science,” or “cooperative research.” What fishermen see on the water is often critical information. I spend a lot of hours down at our dock, sharing anecdotes with fishermen from all walks of life. Dock talk can be tricky to decipher, but it can be a great indicator of the current condition of our fish stocks. Well-designed scientific studies that employ knowledgeable fishermen get us more and better data for less money, plus the community’s trust that the science is up to date and on target.

My responsibility to my son is the same as our responsibility to the next generation — to ensure they have a future on the water. It is also the responsibility of Congress, which should be focused on successfully implementing laws and management structures to safeguard the future of our fish and fishermen. Unfortunately, they’ve been busy quashing funding for research and kicking around really bad amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act — amendments that would send so many important species back into decline.

As a mother and an angler with extensive experience in the realms of fisheries management and coastal management, I urge you to reach out to your legislators and demand that they keep these good laws in place, fund the research we need to keep our fisheries contributing optimally to the economy, and protect the places that fish need to live in those troubled, uncertain waters that we call home.

About Emily Helmick

Emily Helmick is an attorney in private practice and a realtor based in Jupiter, Florida. When she isn’t fishing or diving, she volunteers for conservation organizations protecting South Florida’s beaches, estuaries, and reefs.

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