In 1996, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) determined that tautog (also known as “blackfish”) were being badly overfished, and that the fishing mortality rate had to be reduced to no more than 0.15. Such a fishing mortality rate would result in about 14% of the tautog being removed from the population each year.
That reduction was never achieved, and the tautog population suffered badly as a result.
When the decision to reduce fishing mortality was first made, the fishing mortality rate was estimated to be 0.54, which meant that between 40% and 45% of the tautog were removed from the population annually—three times the rate recommended by ASMFC.
Had the tautog fishery been governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which governs fishing in federal waters, overfishing could not have legally continued past 1998. However, since tautog are managed by the states through ASMFC, tautog managers faced no such deadline. Instead, they didn’t require the states to end overfishing until 1999.
But even after 1999, overfishing continued.
In 1997, ASMFC acknowledged that “The tautog resource is at low levels and will not likely rebuild without strict conservation measures. Further, another year of fishing at current levels [a fishing mortality rate greater than 0.50] will delay initial stock rebuilding, will contribute to further declines in spawning stock biomass, and could contribute to truncation of the age structure. These are important considerations given the slow growth rate and long life span of tautog.”
Despite such acknowledgement, after the states failed to bring overfishing under control by 1999, ASMFC put off the required harvest reduction for three more years, deferring it to 2002.
The primary justification for delaying harvest reductions was a lack of good, state-level data. That’s an argument that never would have prevailed under Magnuson-Stevens, which requires that fishery management measures be based on the “best scientific information available [emphasis added],” even if such information isn’t quite as good as managers would like it to be. Courts have recognized that “by specifying that decisions be based on the best scientific information available, the Magnuson-Stevens Act recognizes that such information may not be exact or totally complete.”
At ASMFC, however, such incomplete information can justify a delay in imposing needed management measures, even if such delay can lead to “delay[ed] initial stock rebuilding, …declines in spawning stock biomass, and…truncation of the age structure” of the stock.
Because of such delays, the fishing mortality rate in 2001 was still far too high. At 0.41, it was nearly triple the original target of 0.15. However, additional data, made available to ASMFC’s tautog managers in 2002, led them to abandon their original target fishing mortality rate in favor of one twice as high. They believed that the higher fishing mortality rate would result in a tautog stock that retained about 40% of the spawning potential of an unfished population, a level that managers considered sustainable.
Yet the tautog managers never established a deadline for achieving that spawning potential, and never adopted a plan to hold states and their fishermen accountable should fishing mortality exceed the new target. Lacking such safeguards, the stock never rebuilt.
In 2007, ASMFC admitted that “The trend in total stock biomass and spawning stock biomass has been generally flat and at low levels since 1994.”
Ten years of supposed management, highlighted by ASMFC’s managers dithering and delaying needed management measures instead of taking decisive action, accomplished no rebuilding at all.
In an effort to spur stock growth, tautog managers reversed course, reducing the target fishing mortality rate to 0.20; for the first time, they also set a spawning stock biomass target of 26,800 metric tons and a spawning stock biomass threshold, which defined an overfished stock, at 20,100 metric tons. When such actions were taken, the spawning stock stood at about 10,600 metric tons, and so remained very badly overfished.
Once again, the managers failed to establish annual catch limits to prevent overfishing, and never set a rebuilding deadline for the stock. Once again, they failed to hold fishermen accountable when they overfished. And once again, they failed to rebuild the tautog stock.
In 2011, the spawning stock biomass was still estimated to be just 10,533 metric tons. The fishing mortality rate was 0.38, nearly twice the 0.20 target.
At that point, ASMFC’s tautog managers came full circle, and found themselves where they were fifteen years before, recommending a target fishing mortality rate of 0.15. Unfortunately, once again, they adopted no mechanism to prevent overfishing and no hard target date for the recovery of the stock.
And so once again, the tautog stock languished.
In 2016, the tautog stock assessment was updated. The new assessment revealed that, on a coastwide basis, the lack of annual catch limits and the failure to hold fishermen accountable yielded the expected results: the fishing mortality rate hadn’t changed. It was still at 0.38, more than twice the fishing mortality target. The stock remained badly overfished, as well.
Although the new stock assessment bore the same dismal news, it recommended a new approach to tautog management. Instead of managing the species on a coastwide basis, it suggested that tautog be managed as four separate, regional population, to account for the fact that they don’t make long, coastwise migrations. At first, the new management approach gave fishermen reason to hope that ASMFC would, finally, get tautog management right.
All four of the local populations were overfished, but the two at either end of the species’ range—the tautog off Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and those off Delaware, Maryland and Virginia—were not subject to overfishing. While tautog found in the ocean off New York and New Jersey were subject to modest overfishing, those found in Long Island Sound between New York and Connecticut were suffering from overfishing so severe that a 47% reduction in landings would have only a 50-50 chance of ending the problem.
Unfortunately, a 47% reduction was far more of a cut than some in the angling community were willing to accept. When ASMFC held a public meeting in New York to take public comment on the question, representatives of the party and charter boat industry weren’t even willing to let the ASMFC representative speak. Soon after the start of the meeting, one Montauk captain told her that “We don’t care about your science. Your science is bullcrap.” That set the tone for the rest of the event, which was more mob scene than meeting, as captain after captain rejected the biological data and demanded that the regulations remain unchanged.
Another meeting held in Connecticut saw attendees that were somewhat more orderly, but held similar opinions.
Such truculence seems to have worked, for at its August meeting, ASMFC’s Tautog Management Board chose to defer action on Long Island Sound harvest reductions. When action was finally taken in October, ASMFC opted to reduce Long Island Sound harvest by only 20.3%, far less than needed to achieve the fishing mortality target. Once again, it did not establish any deadlines to end overfishing, and chose not to set any final rebuilding date for the stock.
Thus, it seems that after twenty-one years of failure, ASMFC’s tautog managers have still failed to learn that without hard annual catch limits to prevent overfishing, without measures to hold fishermen accountable when they do overfish and without a firm rebuilding deadline to guide the rulemaking process, tautog are unlikely to be rebuilt.
Managers seem more intent on avoiding politically unpopular management measures than on rebuilding the stock. They seem more willing to hope that a couple of strong year classes in Long Island Sound will restore the local population, and less willing to take affirmative actions that will make such a recovery far more certain.
In their actions, ASMFC’s tautog managers demonstrate why state fishery managers, who aren’t required to end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks, have so consistently failed to restore depleted fish populations.
Their failure stands in marked contrast to the successes of federal fisheries managers who are required, by the provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, to set annual catch limits for each managed species, hold fishermen accountable when they exceed those limits and rebuild overfished stocks within ten years or, if that is not feasible, then by the earliest possible date.
If tautog were federally managed, fishermen might have been enjoying the experience of fishing on fully-rebuilt stocks today. Because they are managed by ASMFC, tautog fishermen, more often than not, merely experience disappointment.