The Challenge: Managing Recovering Fish Stocks

Summer Flounder

Summer Flounder photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

When there are lots of fish, they’re easy to manage. The best example might be scup in the northeast. Abundance is twice the biomass target; in recent years, neither the recreational nor the commercial landings have approached the annual catch limit.

Badly depleted stocks can also be easy to manage. Anglers like to catch something when they go fishing. Most target whatever fish are abundant, and ignore the ones that are scarce.

Rebuilding stocks present the greatest management challenge. As abundance increases, fish become more abundant and some older, larger fish become available, and anglers begin to target the recovering species.

The combination of more fish, more fishermen and an increased availability of larger fish results in anglers quickly catching, and then often exceeding, their annual catch limit. Harvest increases faster than the stock can expand, forcing managers to impose more restrictive regulations in an effort to constrain harvest and avoid overfishing. Anglers, in turn, are confounded when they see regulations tightened at a time when fish are growing more abundant.

Spokesmen for the fishing industry, fearing that new restrictions will hurt their businesses, express their discontent by making inflammatory statements in the press. Such statements, intended to stoke anglers’ hostility toward the management process, place fishery managers in a very uncomfortable situation.

Thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), managers have had to face that problem a number of times over the past decade or two.

Summer flounder was probably the first species to create such a conundrum. The population bottomed out in 1989, and then slowly began to rebuild. By the early 2000s, the recovery was well underway. Anglers were bringing home more and larger fish than they had a few years before, and eventually began regularly exceeding their annual catch limit.

Regulations were made more restrictive, but failed to prevent overharvest, beginning a cycle of overfishing, tightened regulations and more overfishing that continued for many years.

Opponents of the new regulations tried to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, and attacked the summer flounder rebuilding plan. Comments made by New Jersey outdoor columnist Al Ristori were typical.

“The [rebuilding] target is an estimate of what fluke stocks were at their maximum in the 1930s, but it’s little more than a guess made without reference to the forage and predation at the time, or the loss of wetlands since then…

“Rep. Jim Saxton (R-3rd Dist.) is putting heat on NMFS to review that target figure and come up with a more realistic goal. It’s not that there’s real overfishing involved in fluke stocks that have been increasing steadily and the spawning stock biomass is in excellent shape. There has been poor recruitment despite the abundance of spawners, but that could be due to many natural factors—including an abundance of spiny dogfish that are eating everything in the ocean…

“Managing fisheries for the best interests of society should be common sense, but that’s not what’s been done under the present Magnuson Act system.

“Saxton is trying to incorporate language that would provide flexibility in management so that the basic concept of the law—public management of marine fisheries through a council system—can become a reality.”

Anyone somewhat familiar with the federal fisheries management system, and with summer flounder management, could easily debunk such statements. However, fishermen who knew only that they were catching more and bigger summer flounder than they had in the past, but that regulations were growing ever more restrictive, unquestioningly accepted them as true.

They found it easier to blame dogfish instead of themselves…

Fortunately, Congress fended off attacks on Magnuson-Stevens while the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) fended off attacks on the summer flounder management plan. New Information on natural mortality led managers to reduce their estimates of the stock size needed to produce maximum sustainable yield. Eventually, NMFS declared that the stock was rebuilt. However, that only shifted the management debate from whether the management plan worked (results showed that it did) to who would enjoy the plan’s benefits.

That moved the problem from the realm of federal fisheries managers to that of the states, which act through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). In 2004, ASMFC allocated the recreational summer flounder landings among the states based on such states’ landings in 1998, a year which predated the creation of NMFS’ rebuilding plan. But as the stock rebuilt, it expanded north, with the oldest and largest fish gravitating toward the northeastern end of the range. The 1998 allocation had become obsolete.

Even so, states that benefitted from the earlier allocation were reluctant to yield fish to their northern neighbors. That was particularly true of New Jersey, which received more than 39% of all recreational landings, and enjoyed some of the most liberal regulations on the coast, at the same time that New York, which received just 17.5% of the landings, was forced to adopt the most onerous rules.

After years of bitter debate, the matter was temporarily resolved in 2014, when ASMFC adopted a regional management plan that compelled New Jersey, New York and Connecticut to adopt similar regulations. Summer flounder regulations had finally stabilized, a fact demonstrated late in 2015, after the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council determined that, because of four consecutive years of below-average spawns, 2016 summer flounder landings would have to be decreased by 29%.

Anglers were concerned that they would be facing additional harvest restrictions this year, but it turned out that a combination of fewer fish and reduced angler effort had already sufficiently reduced recreational landings, and allowed the regulations to remain unchanged. The challenge of managing the rebuilt summer flounder stock had finally been mastered.

Today, other fisheries managers are facing similar challenges, most particularly in the case of Gulf of Mexico red snapper, where patterns of recreational overharvest and recreational attacks on the management system are similar to what occurred in the mid-Atlantic.

The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), an “anglers’ rights” group that draws most of its membership from the Gulf region, echoed Ristori’s summer flounder remarks when it said

“The red snapper fishery is the healthiest that it has been in decades and it could be the largest the population has ever been, thanks in large part to the expansion of habitat created by offshore oil and gas platforms and limitations on shrimp trawling bycatch. But you would never be able to tell under federal management, which last year limited the recreational season to nine days in federal waters. Such overly restrictive regulations are incongruous with what anglers and many fisheries scientists are seeing on the water, and are negatively impacting the thousands of recreational fishing dependent businesses all along the Gulf coast.”

Once again, anyone even somewhat familiar with the management program could find fault with such comments, particularly the statement that “it could be the largest the population has ever been,” but they nonetheless serve CCA’s purpose of prejudicing anglers against both the federal management system and regulations needed to continue another successful rebuilding effort.

Similar situations will arise whenever stocks are being rebuilt, and anglers seek to enjoy the newfound abundance. It is incumbent upon fisheries managers to rise to the challenge, and not be intimidated by the rhetoric of those who would kill too many fish now and, because of their impatience, delay or completely halt the recovery process.

Human nature will always make managing recovering stocks a difficult job, but benefits that flow from healthy fish stocks makes it a worthwhile job as well.

About Charles Witek

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

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