When It Comes to Our Fish, Everything Is Connected

Red Snapper

Photo: Red Snapper

I recently attended a media summit in Galveston, Texas, which was hosted by Trout Unlimited, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association and The Ocean Conservancy.

Titled “The State of Our Fishing Waters: The Connection Between our Headwaters and the Ocean,” it had an ambitious agenda; presentations began promptly at 7:00 a.m. But as I looked over the list of topics and speakers, there seemed to be no common theme. Talks about mine waste that threatened Pacific salmon were scheduled side-by-side with talks about legislation that threatened Gulf of Mexico reef fish.

At first, it didn’t make sense.

But as the first speaker described how discharges from hard-rock mines endangered salmon runs, I didn’t envision scarlet sockeyes ascending Alaska’s tumbling Stikine.

Instead, my mind conjured thoughts of striped bass running through the Hudson River’s stained waters, seeking their spawning grounds. Along with that vision came memories of General Electric releasing PCBs into the river, threatening those bass a few decades ago.

And that’s when I made the connection. In New York as well as Alaska, and everywhere else on the coast, two things always hold true. Rivers flow from the uplands down to the sea, their waters bearing witness to everything they encounter along the way. And fish flow from the sea up the rivers, depending on their clean and abundant waters to produce the next generation of life.

I often write about the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), and its role in rebuilding and conserving once depleted stocks of marine fish. It has done a commendable job, but for all practical purposes, its authority stops three miles from shore; within state waters, it has little effect, while up in the rivers, it has no impact at all.

On the U.S. East Coast, river herring once swarmed into every coastal river and creek in the spring. When I was a boy, living on the Connecticut shore, the return of the herring to the Mianus River was an annual event. Sometime late in March, we’d start wandering past the river, looking for the first schools of herring that kicked off the run.

Once they appeared, it wasn’t long before the run was on in full force, and with the herring came the people. There were lobstermen catching bait to kick off their season, and ordinary folks with dip nets who lined the banks, filling bushel baskets with fish that they would take home, brine and eat.

At low tide, the river was barely awash, but herring would turn on their sides to negotiate the shallow flows that trickled between the stones; their scales would flash silver, reflecting the sun, as they struggled to reach the deep water at the base of the power plant dam, where they could swim upright once again.

But the same dam that gave them temporary sanctuary in the end was their doom, as it blocked further passage upstream. In time, the run dwindled, and almost died out.

Throughout the river herring’s range, from swift, stony creeks in New England to the slow, muddy rivers of the southeast, dams have separated the fish from their spawning grounds. In the rivers of the Pacific Northwest and northern California, salmon face the same threat. In both cases, dam removal and other conservation efforts are making slow headway, but provide no protection to salmon that are still out at sea.

There, Magnuson-Stevens offers some help, but international agreements are needed to protect salmon in the open ocean, more than 200 miles from United States shores, where they remain vulnerable to illegal netting. Some salmon runs have become so depleted that Magnuson-Stevens no can no longer help; those runs are now given greater protection under the Endangered Species Act. Others find their spawning grounds threatened by toxic runoff from mines; the Clean Water Act may prove to be their sole salvation.

In the Atlantic, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is beginning to extend grudging protection to river herring during their time at sea. However, NMFS deals with the herring only as bycatch, and has refused to draft a comprehensive federal fisheries management plan. That may be changing after conservation advocates successfully challenged NMFS’ decision in federal court, relying on the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.

To thrive, anadromous fish populations need both state and federal protections, and the attention of not just fisheries managers, but of agencies charged with protecting the environment as a whole.

Even species that spend their entire lives in salt water must depend on both state and federal law. No fish demonstrates that as clearly as Gulf of Mexico red snapper, a fish that sits at the heart of the current fisheries management debate.

Over the past two decades or so, thanks largely to the efforts of federal fisheries managers, the red snapper stock has bounced back from being severely overfished—there were so few adult females left that the stock could produce only 2.6% of its spawning potential—and is now well on its way to recovery. In fact, it is recovering so quickly that the total allowable catch in 2015 was 30% higher than it was just the year before. Still, red snapper are both long-lived and relatively slow to mature; a full recovery probably won’t be achieved until sometime around 2032.

That’s too long for some members of the recreational fishing community, who want to be able to harvest more red snapper today, and not wait until the stock has fully recovered. Because Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t allow harvest to exceed scientifically prudent levels, their efforts to kill more fish have been rebuffed by federal fisheries managers.

Thus, instead of working for consistent state and federal management measures, which complement one another and work in harmony to conserve and rebuild the stock, they do their best to convince state managers to go out of compliance with federal regulations, so that they may harvest red snapper within state waters when the federal season is closed.

They are also working for federal legislation that would strip NMFS of all authority to manage red snapper, and to give state fisheries managers the authority to manage the species up to 200 miles from shore. That would virtually assure them a bigger kill, as state fisheries managers aren’t bound by Magnuson-Stevens.

It would also assure that the red snapper’s recovery stops in its tracks, although that doesn’t seem to concern them.

Thus, the media conference lived up to its billing. What seemed, at first, to be disjoint presentations ultimately combined into a seamless whole that made it clear that, if fish stocks are to thrive, fisheries laws must create a seamless web that spreads across jurisdictions, to give adequate protection to fish, wherever they are, throughout every stage of their lives.

About Charles Witek

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

7 comments on “When It Comes to Our Fish, Everything Is Connected

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