Wrongheaded Cries For Fisheries “Reform”

Charles Witek

I recently read an editorial in a local angling newspaper that criticized the way summer flounder are managed.

It was written by Nick Cicero, a founding member of the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF). Back in the late 1980s, summer flounder abundance bottomed out, and overfishing was so bad that it was hard to find a fish more than two years old. Anyone who remembers the fishing back then, and compares it to what we have today, might think that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has already done a pretty fine job of saving the summer flounder fishery.

However, SSFFF disagrees, and is now striving to “save” that fishery by paying biologists to conduct studies that will, SSFFF hopes, allow anglers to kill more and smaller fish. As Mr. Cicero’s editorial makes clear, the goal of SSFFF’s efforts is to discredit NMFS’ rigorously peer-reviewed science, which is what allowed managers to successfully rebuild the summer flounder stock in the first place.

Yet the editorial doesn’t stop with criticisms of the science. It also criticizes the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the federal law that requires that “the best scientific information available” be used to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks. The editorial urges support for legislation such as H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, which would grant fisheries managers the “flexibility” to ignore scientifically sound stock assessments and allow stocks to be overfished without risk of legal sanction.

Instead of stock assessments based on statistically verifiable, peer-reviewed data, H.R. 1335 would

“facilitate greater incorporation of data, analysis and stock assessments from nongovernmental sources, including fishermen, fishing communities, universities and research institutions into fisheries management decisions. [emphasis added]”

Under such a regime, the comments of a New England trawler who said, “I’m telling you, [the fish are] out there. We’ve had no problems locating codfish,” in an effort to stave off harvest reductions, could be given the same or greater weight than a peer-reviewed stock assessment that found that cod abundance has dropped to just three or four percent of target levels.

When we look at Mr. Cicero’s editorial, we see him promoting a lot of the same sort of questionable “science” that the cod trawler did.

He calls the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s recent decision to reduce the 2016 catch limit for summer flounder “unsubstantiated”; even though the Council based such reduction on a steady decline in summer flounder abundance that was caused by poor recruitment in the four years between 2010 and 2013.

Such data was clearly presented in the benchmark summer flounder stock assessment completed in 2013, and refined in the 2015 update of that assessment. However, if such professionally compiled analysis of hard data doesn’t represent the kind of “science” respected by SSFFF, they can be comforted by the fact that information provided to NMFS by anglers confirms the trend.

In Mr. Cicero’s home state of New Jersey, where regulations were not substantially altered for 2015, landings for the first six months of this year were down 64% from what they were for the same period last season, which certainly suggests that fewer fish were available to anglers. And the decline in first-half harvest wasn’t just a New Jersey phenomenon; coast-wide landings are also down, although by a more modest 15%.

Yet Mr. Cicero remains adamantly opposed to amending catch limits in response to a clearly declining population, saying

“Good smart management would include regulations and quotas that remain the same for a minimum of three seasons with 3 or 5 years being a better option. Just because you reduce mortality one year doesn’t mean that you’ll see an increase in young of the year; certainly striped bass science has taught us that?”

Strictly speaking, he’s right. Consistent regulations tend to lead to better angler compliance, both because anglers don’t have to keep up with changing rules and because constantly changing regulations give many anglers a sense that fishery managers don’t really know what they’re doing.

Of course, if regulations are set for multi-year periods, they must adopt lower harvest limits than rules established for only one year because, as Mr. Cicero suggests, a large biomass does not necessarily equate to good recruitment, so regulations adopted for the long term need to be conservative enough to allow for downside surprises, including recruitment failure.

That’s clearly the polar opposite of what Mr. Cicero is seeking, which suggests that he may not quite grasp how the science of fisheries management works.

But then, a number of his statements should cause some raised eyebrows. For example, he notes that

“there is significant proof showing that when adult populations are low that reproduction occurs at an earlier age and is often more prolific.”

That is partly true.

When a fish population falls to very low levels, younger individuals will often mature and spawn earlier than they would if the stock remained healthy. However, forcing a badly stressed stock to depend on such precocious individuals, which typically produce fewer and less viable eggs, for its survival is the antithesis of good fisheries management.

Unfortunately, the idea seems to be becoming more and more accepted as “good science” among those in the recreational fishing industry who constantly seek larger kills.

Mr. Cicero also appears to blame the recent poor recruitment, at least in part, on

“[t]he biomass of spiny dogfish that the NMFS overprotective regulations have spawned [which is] unfathomable as is the destructive effect of those predators.”

And then he says that

“Sea bass over-abundance has had its way with young of the year flounder, both winter and summer flavors.”

The fact that there are no credible scientific studies that might suggest such statements are true does not appear to trouble Mr. Cicero. It might not trouble some of the folks who sit on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council either, should a bill such as H.R. 1335 become law.

Under such law, baseless statements of that sort could easily be deemed “data, analysis and stock assessments from…fishermen” and incorporated into a fishery management plan.

That’s probably why Mr. Cicero ended his editorial by saying that

“Congress needs to pass pragmatic Magnuson Stevens Act reform (HR 1335 approved by the House) so we can move forward with a new set of protocols and manage our fisheries with a common sense approach.”

And that’s definitely why the rest of us, who care about maintaining healthy fish stocks for ourselves and for generations to come, need to work hard to prevent that “reform” from occurring.

For as summer flounder has already demonstrated, the Magnuson-Stevens Act works just fine as it is.

If we used “common sense,” we’d leave it alone.

About Charles Witek

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

4 comments on “Wrongheaded Cries For Fisheries “Reform”

  1. Charlie…
    What are your thoughts and opinions regarding the Agency revisiting National Standards 1, 3 and 7?
    Greg DiDomenico
    Garden State Seafood Association

  2. As the present rules stand recreational fisherman are harvestng essentially only breeding females that would have the most and healthiest eggs therefor most likely to continue the species. Mr Witek seems to have a difficult time with younger fish being recruited to spawn but has no problem with removing ONLY the fish we need to continue a population that is declining in SPITE of the current regulations, how could this not dictate a change in policy. We have trawlers off NJ taking large numbers of smaller 14″ fish and recreational fisherman taking what would have been trophy fish years ago . The solution is somewhere in between

  3. Interestingly enough, the “Rigorously Peer-Reviewed” science that Mr. Witek extols has already been proven to be woefully inadequate, coincidentally by scientists hired by SSFFF.

    This “rigorously peer-reviewed science” only allowed the stock to be rebuilt without CLOSING or severely restricting the fishery further because it was found to be significantly UNDER estimating the stocks rebuilt status.

    Again, by scientists hired by SSFFF. The scientist in question was not one of the peer-reviewers for NMFS, but one who designs and refines the stock assessment models used by NMFS.

    Hence the reason NMFS invited SSFFF’s information (as a result of Dr. Maunder’s work) to be incorporated into a previous stock assessment and significantly change the status of the stock at that time.

    Perhaps Mr. Witek simply forgot about this recent history. Or, perhaps he figures the federal governments science could not possibly be in error twice.

    More likely? Mr. Witek, as much as when I sat next to him on the MAFMC, continues to consider himself right while everyone else that disagrees with him must be wrong.
    Tony Bogan

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