‘Localized Depletion’

Photo by John McMurray

We all get it… So why they hell don’t fisheries managers?

Top photo by John McMurray

Localized depletion… Pretty self-explanatory right? You scoop up tons and tons of bait fish in a pretty specific area, then they just aren’t there anymore.

Sure, some may remain, maybe even a good amount. But those big schooling concentrations of say herring, or bunker, or squid, or anything really, are gone. What’s left becomes so dispersed you can’t really call them concentrations anymore. For days? Weeks? Months? Sometimes… often times they don’t come back or regroup at all that year.

And so gone are those big red bait balls on your sounder. Gone are those epic surface feeds, and those big-ass bluefin that smash a plug as soon as it lands in the water. Gone are those stripers in the 40-pound class crashing through schools of bunker. Gone are the massive schools of bass that stack up on the rips, gorging on squid. Gone are the whales, dolphins, birds, or any other indicator that there may be fish to catch. Gone is the “life.” Everything simply moves on.

Yep… That’s localized depletion. There are certainly those folks who say this sort of exodus doesn’t happen. But I can tell you that it sure as (expletive) does, and it really sucks. It ain’t’ fair… to us… to anyone… save for the few special interests who benefit from turning all that biomass into what’s usually a low value product.

There are people and groups that have been trying to get fishery managers to look at the “localized depletion” issue for years, even decades. And I’m not just talking about ENGOs… I’m talking about real fishermen. The commercial bluefin tuna fleet — the rod and reel guys, the stick (harpoon) boats, etc. — that get pushed out by large-scale herring boats are the first that come to mind. But there are certainly plenty of other stakeholders that get screwed (e.g., the whale watching outfits in New England, the for-hire fleets in VA and MD that have to deal with the menhaden reduction boats, and recently Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard fishermen who don’t get squid in the rips anymore, arguably because of the sheer volume of squid boats that have amassed in recent years just south of the Islands). For sure, there are plenty of other examples.

Addressing such localized depletion has always been an uphill battle. Only recently has it gained any traction. There are a few reasons for this.

For one, there is a real problem proving such a thing exists. Managers can’t even come up with an agreed-upon definition of what “localized depletion” is. I mean, how ridiculous is that?

One would certainly think that a commonsense definition would come quickly. But the reality is that “depletion” is difficult to prove. Are you really depleting the stock by just removing a concentration of fish in a specific area?

Consider the way most marine fish stocks are currently managed. Allowable catch is determined by how much of that resource can be removed from the water while still letting the stock maintain itself at sustainable levels. There currently isn’t any real consideration of the spatial and temporal needs of predators. Because… well, because managers aren’t required to take this sort of thing into account.

With that in mind, the current thinking seems to be, who gives a crap where and when baitfish are removed, so long as the overfishing threshold isn’t exceeded.

So, some industry reps and managers have successfully argued that it’s not “depletion” or a conservation issue at all. It’s simply a “gear conflict” issue – big industrial boats impacting smaller boats. By framing it this way, they can argue that they have a right to be there as much as any other resource user. I’ve heard industry reps say that no one group “owns the ocean.” That may be true. But if that’s the case, one resource user shouldn’t be able to ruin things for the rest of us, right? I mean, this IS a public resource.

But getting back to the appropriateness of the term “depletion.” From an overall stock perspective maybe it isn’t appropriate… But from a spatial/temporal or an ecosystem (predator/prey) perspective? Absolutely it is.

Even if the management discussion can get this far (in the case of Atlantic herring it’s taken fishery managers well over a decade to get here), we run into the burden of proof. We are faced with the difficult problem here of debunking the argument that significant predator displacement doesn’t really happen, and that we are just a bunch of whiners that simply don’t like “big” boats.

There’s plenty of anecdotal recounting from commercial and recreational fishermen, whale-watching outfits, etc. But real, usable data is lacking.

Yes, the science folks can show fleet overlap (i.e., who fishes where and when and where potential conflicts might arise), but there is no real science, at least that I’m aware of, showing, for example, that fewer bluefin tuna, striped bass, etc., are caught after a midwater trawl frequents an area. Catch data isn’t and hasn’t been collected with this in mind. I don’t think such science exists in the areas where the big menhaden reduction boats operate either. And it certainly doesn’t exist with the squid fleet.

I mean, it’s common sense that such predator displacement occurs. Of course predators that gather to feed in the same areas where bait concentrations occur would inevitably be affected. But in the resource management world, common sense (something that seems so obvious) holds a lot less value than science supported by data.

There have been some efforts to collect such data, but the NOAA Science Center folks have made it very clear that at this point it would be very difficult, and maybe impossible, to demonstrate a definitive causal relationship between localized industrial scale fisheries and predator abundance.

Yet even without such science, managers can certainly make policy decisions to address “localized depletion”. But with aggressive pushback from industry lobbyists, and without the needed science, managers are often (arguably most of the time) reluctant to act. And like I said, they certainly aren’t required to.

That said, there are a few cases that come to mind where managers do appear to be moving in the right direction.

The New England Council seems to be moving toward addressing localized Atlantic herring depletion in Amendment 8 to their Herring Fishery Management Plan. During scoping for the amendment, stakeholders made it abundantly clear that localized depletion off of Cape Cod was an issue, particularly in those near shore areas that small boat fishermen, as well as whale watching outfits, utilize.

The Council is currently developing a range of alternatives, which will likely include nearshore closures and/or gear restrictions in such areas. But remember, the Council may consider those alternatives and then chose not address them. As I said, they are under no obligation to do so.

The Mid Atlantic Council is currently developing a squid capacity amendment, part of which will likely contain alternatives for a “buffer zone” on the south-side of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where squid trawling would be prohibited. Such action is being taken because of concerns, raised by the public, that the fleet may be impacting recreational and commercial fisheries targeting predators close to the islands. A lot of people believe the squid just aren’t getting through the gauntlet of boats. Again, the Council may choose not to take action. I expect this one to be really contentious. Stay tuned.

The Mid Atlantic Council is also addressing the potential for localized depletion with their Unmanaged Forage Amendment, which would put certain species of forage off limits to large scale fishing until the science needed to determine what can be sustainability removed, in an ecosystem context, is developed. This would prevent localized depletion of large concentrations of forage like sandeels that fuel offshore fisheries for tunas, etc. The amendment explicitly takes into account such forage species’ relationships to predators. That may seem like a simple thing, but really this is kinda groundbreaking, at least on this coast. I’m hoping things stay together with this one, and that we’ll see final action in August.

These recent examples are, of course, all good steps in the right direction, but where we end up is anyone’s guess. And really, they are scattered, haphazard attempts to address what I consider to be a serious gap in fisheries management.

As I’ve mentioned throughout this blog, managers just aren’t required to make decisions based on such predator/prey ecosystem considerations. Right now almost everything is based on single species management, with very little, if any, accounting of what happens between those species and everything else around them. And when we consider something like the ecological, not to mention economic, effects of localized depletion you can see where we’ve been falling short.

Yes, managers can recognize and address ecosystem considerations like localized depletion now, but it’s discretionary. The progress that has been made thus far has not come easy, and it’s certainly up in the air whether or not there will be real follow-through.

What we really need is a federal requirement that requires managers to deal with these sorts of things, rather than the current law, which really gives managers the leeway to ignore something like localized depletion.

Yet, currently, it seems like the recreational community, at least the industry side of it, is focused on getting rid of the precautionary provisions of federal fisheries management law (the Magnuson-Stevens Act) that ensure there are actually a good amount fish in the water for us to catch. I’m the first one to admit that there are some issues with how the law is applied, but I feel like the Councils are already working to address them.

My point is that instead of focusing on changing a law that is clearly working to rebuild stocks (aka keeping fish in the water for us to catch), we should be to focusing on changing it so that managers are required to address the kind of ecosystem interactions described above.

Because to me, and probably to a lot of you out there, changing the law to let me kill more fish is far less important than having a law that assures a widespread abundance of bait and, ultimately, feeding fish. Because if the fish aren’t around, regulations that let me put more in the cooler mean little.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

3 comments on “‘Localized Depletion’

  1. Localized depletion is equally a problem here on the Gulf Coast due to the large and highly indiscriminate menhaden fleets.

  2. Pingback: In Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket, There Ain't No Stripas - Marine Fish Conservation Network


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