How Did Fish Survive Before We Came Along?

American lobster

I was attending the November meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council when the topic of lobsters came up.

The southern New England stock of American lobster has collapsed, and a state biologist was doing her best to explain just how far abundance had fallen and what the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) was doing to rebuild the population. As part of her presentation, she said that a number of things contributed to the stock’s decline, including warming waters, high harvest levels and, possibly, increased predation.

Fishermen in the room quickly latched onto predation as the cause of the lobsters’ ills.

Predation requires a predator, and blame was quickly assigned to the black sea bass, a stock that was badly overfished not too long ago, but has since been restored.

Unfortunately, fishermen have grown so used to seeing stocks languish at some depleted level, when one actually is restored, they can become intimidated by its abundance. Thus, although the black sea bass is just a small bottom fish that rarely weighs more than five pounds and probably averages closer to two, it has become, in the minds of some fishermen, a terrifying super-predator that is destroying the ocean’s balance.

A New York representative to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Advisory Panel demonstrated how divorced from reality such thinking could become when he claimed that “The biomass for sea bass is so much higher than what we have recorded. They’re wiping out other species. If we don’t act soon you’re going to lose the lobster fishery throughout the northeast. We need an emergency opening of both the commercial and recreational black sea bass fishery. We need to allow 100 pounds of black sea bass bycatch per day…”

If such comment were taken at face value, it would seem that lobsters just couldn’t survive unless there were people around to protect them from black sea bass and other potential predators.

Yet biologists tell us that American lobster have probably been around since the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago. Back then, lobster were completely on their own, and yet they managed to survive quite well until just a few years ago, which suggests that black sea bass aren’t their real problem.

Even so, the notion that lobster, fish and other sea creatures need people to protect them from their environment has become a surprisingly pervasive part of fisheries debates.

In 2014, when the MAFMC’s debate over forage fish management intensified, the law firm of Kelley, Drye and Warren (Kelley, Drye) weighed in on the issue. Acting on behalf of Omega Protein Corporation (Omega), the Atlantic Coast’s only industrial-scale harvester of menhaden, the firm submitted a letter to the council, which questioned the need to give forage fish any special consideration.

The letter contained a number of carefully-worded arguments, all intended to undermine efforts to adopt ecosystem-based forage fish management. When parsed carefully, the letter doesn’t provide much support for Omega’s position (for example, it quotes a paper that said “single-stock [forage fish] collapses may not always be detrimental for predators in the long term [emphasis added],”) but to a casual reader, it might seem convincing.

Yet even a casual reader is going to stop short when they get to that part of the letter which argues that abundant forage fish stocks pose a threat to other species. Kelley, Drye argued that “Even forage fish are predators at some stages of their life cycles…Juvenile Atlantic herring opportunistically prey on fish eggs and larvae…Increased population sizes could therefore lead to increased predation on other stocks.”

Kelley, Drye went on to claim that “Filter feeders, such as menhaden, are also predators, feeding on eggs and larvae of their own and other commercially important species. A LIDAR study in the Chesapeake Bay found billions of menhaden, numbers that can have a measurable impact on menhaden, striped bass, oyster, and crab recruitment.”

Once again, it’s hard not to recall that jawed fish first appeared in the Ordovician Period, roughly 450 million years ago, and became abundant in the Devonian, 50 to 100 million years later. For almost all of the hundreds of millions of years since, completely unfished populations of forage fish have thrived in all the world’s oceans, and the fish that preyed upon them have thrived as well.

Thus, Kelley, Drye’s claim that forage fish populations, maintained at levels equal to forty, fifty, or possibly seventy-five percent of their unfished abundance, threaten otherwise healthy fish stocks is nothing less than an insult to MAFMC members’ intelligence.

Unless, of course, those other stocks have been severely overfished, in which case any natural mortality might cause further harm.

Such overfishing is a key issue, as fishermen are too often willing to blame a host of predators for a stock’s decline, while refusing to admit that their own overfishing caused most of the harm.

In 2001, the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab fishery was close to collapse, and both Maryland and Virginia imposed regulations on fishermen that, it was hoped, would allow the population to rebuild. Most of the fishermen, however, denied responsibility for the crabs’ problems. One waterman, interviewed by National Geographic, protested that “We’ve got millions and millions of fish in the bay. If we could catch more fish it would help the crab population.”

That attitude remained unchanged at least through 2014 when, at the October meeting of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, another waterman objected to a reduction in striped bass harvest, because “We’ve got so many striped bass that it has affected our crab-catching industry…When the charterboats catch the striped bass and they clean them, you can count anywhere from ten to forty crabs in the belly of a rockfish…”

Although the speakers and the fish that they talk about vary, similar arguments are heard on every part of the coast.

In Alabama, people complain that “an increase in the red snapper population can upset the equilibrium of the reef habitat and start to impact other species of reef fish,” even though the current red snapper population remains far smaller than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s.

A New Jersey staffer for The Fisherman magazine, objecting to more restrictive summer flounder regulations, wrote “one might reasonably assume that stringent preservation of other predatory species like spiny dogfish and black sea bass—an imbalanced effort to create preservation and abundance—could significantly impact the amount of young fluke. While local commercial fishermen are once again allowed to harvest spiny dogs, the environmentalists who forced the closure of this fishery a decade ago ultimately destroyed that market, creating an over-abundance of fluke-hungry sea wolves.”

And here on Long Island, where winter flounder have all but disappeared, fishermen continue to blame seals, striped bass, cormorants and other species, but too seldom regret taking countless bushels of fish off their spawning grounds, when flounder still swarmed there a few decades ago.

In truth, both forage fish and their predators managed just fine for millennia, until too many fishermen killed too many fish and depleted too many fish stocks.

It is time that all of us stopped looking for other species to blame, took responsibility for the harm that we’ve done and demanded that fish stocks be rebuilt, so that generations not yet born can inherit a healthy and abundant ocean.

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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