When Politicians Engage In Fisheries Management

On Capitol Hill

Over the past half-dozen years, the summer flounder stock has been having some problems, although most anglers probably didn’t notice until the last season or two.

Annual trawl surveys conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) revealed that summer flounder spawning success had been below average in every year between 2010 and 2015, the last spawning year included in the survey data. As a result, the population has declined and NMFS has had to take remedial action to prevent overfishing.

In the summer of 2015, biologists originally suggested that the 2016 annual catch limit for summer flounder would have to be reduced by 43%. That engendered strong opposition from the recreational and commercial summer flounder fisheries, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) Science and Statistics Committee (SSC) decided that they had a high degree of certainty with respect to the summer flounder data, and so could safely phase in the reduction and impose a smaller, 29% catch limit cut in 2015.

As it turned out, recreational summer flounder harvest was so low that it fell not only below that year’s annual catch limit, but below the reduced catch limit for 2016 as well. Thus, managers decided that no change in regulations would be required to further constrain anglers’ landings.

Unfortunately, summer flounder spawning remains below par, so the SSC decided that the annual catch limit for 2017 will have to be reduced by an additional 30%.

This time, there is no doubt that recreational regulations will have to be changed, and that doesn’t make representatives of the fishing industry happy. In New Jersey, the industry has apparently gotten a number of congressmen involved, and convinced them to interfere with the decisions of the SSC.

According to an article in Sportfishing magazine,

“In a bipartisan letter submitted Sept. 29 to assistant administrator for fisheries Eileen Sobeck, members of the United States House of Representatives stressed the importance of scheduling a benchmark assessment for summer flounder in 2017. Citing the socioeconomic value of the commercial and recreational summer flounder fishery and the incoming quota reductions proposed for 2017 and 2018 due in part to a lack of data, Rep. Tom MacArthur and four other representatives indicate that any delay in the assessment of summer flounder ‘would be a major mistake and threaten the health of the summer flounder population as well as the economy of the communities the fishery supports.’ ”

While it’s understandable that the congressmen want to appear responsive to their constituents, their involvement exemplifies an ongoing problem in fisheries management, which recurs each time politicians attempt to substitute their judgment for that of professional fisheries managers.

Summer flounder are assessed on a regular basis. The most recent benchmark assessments were released in 2005, 2008 and 2013, and the 2013 assessment has been updated in every succeeding year. The harvest reductions scheduled for 2017 and 2018 are being driven by six years of below-average spawning, and not by any lack of data.

The congressmen’s statement, although flawed, is probably based on arguments made by the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF), a New Jersey-based group which seeks “to safeguard and improve fishing access to summer flounder, for those who enjoy it and to ensure the survival of those who depend on it, through scientific and legislative means.”

Put in plain language, SSFFF has a broad policy of opposing harvest reductions and supporting harvest increases, and is willing to use political influence to do so.

SSFFF has hired scientists to demonstrate that male summer flounder grow more slowly and have shorter lifespans than females and has argued that, because of such disparity, NMFS should permit higher fishing mortality rates and set a lower biomass target and threshold than those currently included in the fishery management plan.

Sex-differentiated data was incorporated into the 2008 stock assessment, and when the 2013 assessment was being prepared, scientists at the stock assessment workshop were explicitly instructed to “Review recent information on sex-specific growth and on sex rations at age. If possible, determine if fish sex, size and age should be used in the assessment.”

The stock assessment review panel, composed of three internationally-recognized fisheries biologists, found that the 2013 benchmark assessment successfully addressed that task.

Conducting a benchmark assessment in 2017 would disrupt the existing assessment schedule, and require the assessment of other species to be delayed. It would thus seem unwise to do so, as such an assessment would have no impact on 2017 regulations, and there is no guarantee that even the 2018 annual catch limit would be materially changed as a result.

Thus, the timing of the next benchmark assessment is a matter better determined by scientists, based on their needs, than by politicians who are merely responding to someone’s complaints.

On the other hand, at least the congressmen seeking a new summer flounder assessment had a scientific justification for their request, and were merely asking the Northeast Fisheries Science Center to consider additional data. They weren’t trying to make basic scientific decisions themselves.

That wasn’t the case in 2015, when members of the United States Senate’s Appropriations Committee (Committee) issued a report that, although non-binding, gave specific directions to biologists trying to manage red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

The report read, in part

“The Committee is disappointed that NOAA has failed to implement procedures to adequately measure red snapper stocks in the northern Gulf—particularly in areas with physical structures such as offshore oil rigs and artificial reefs. NOAA is directed to begin incorporating fishery data collected on artificial reefs, offshore oil platforms, and any other offshore fixed energy exploration infrastructure directly into the agency’s stock assessments for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico…

“NOAA shall take into consideration any imbalance in the ecosystem that may be occurring between larger red snapper and other fish species before accepting amendments to existing regulations or implementing new regulations that directly affect red snapper quotas in the Gulf of Mexico.”

If anyone on the Committee had taken the time to read the most recent benchmark stock assessment for Gulf of Mexico red snapper, they would have quickly learned that research relating to red snapper abundance on artificial structures was included in the assessment process.

The Committee’s instruction to put greater emphasis on fishery data collected on such artificial structure could, if followed, distort the resulting data by emphasizing areas known to concentrate fish, and thus make red snapper appear more abundant than they actually were. While that might have been some Committee members’ intent, it certainly would not have been good science.

The Committee’s language referring to a supposed “imbalance in the ecosystem” created by “larger” red snapper also lacks scientific merit, and is all too familiar to anyone who has spent any time at fisheries meetings. There is always someone who complains that, because of restrictive regulations, “there are so many [pick your preferred species of fish] out there that they’re eating everything else in the ocean.”

It’s the kind of statement that must make folks wonder how any fish ever survived before people came along to protect them from their predators. And it’s the kind of statement that the Committee should never have made when it was writing up its report.

The fact that it did is just further evidence as to why politicians should not try to tell scientists how to do their job.

There’s an old proverb that says, “Let the cobbler stick to his last.”

That’s good advice for politicians who want to get involved in fisheries matters.

Let legislators stick to drafting laws, so that they can give us good bills such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).

And let scientists stick to doing science and managing fisheries in the way that the authors of Magnuson-Stevens had always intended.

About Charles Witek

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

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