Fisheries Management: Reinventing The (Square) Wheel

Striped Bass

Photo: Striped Bass

Saltwater fisheries management is a relatively new science.

Freshwater fisheries managers have been developing population models and experimenting with various management measures for years, but on the Mid-Atlantic coast, we never saw any such models until 1997, when a virtual population analysis was used to assess the striped bass stock.

Fisheries management has advanced a long way in the last twenty years. Mathematical population models have become the norm; an innovative stock assessment for black sea bass, which passed peer review in late 2016, resolved the last “data-poor species” issue in the Mid-Atlantic region.

However, having a good stock assessment only answers part of the management puzzle. It’s also necessary to limit commercial and recreational landings, so that harvest doesn’t exceed sustainable levels.

That’s not too hard to do in commercial fisheries, where a relatively small number of fishermen must sell their catch to an even smaller number of buyers. In recreational fisheries, where millions of anglers land their fish at countless places that might include remote beaches, busy commercial marinas and even docks in their own backyards, it is far more difficult to get a handle on landings.

In most recreational fisheries, anglers, unlike their commercial counterparts, are not required to report their catch, and it is physically impossible to do an accurate census of all the fish caught. Thus, recreational landings must be estimated by surveying selected anglers, through a process known as the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). Because MRIP is a survey and not a census, its harvest estimates always contain some degree of uncertainty; it also takes some time to calculate harvest estimates from the survey data.

Such delays also mean that it takes some time to determine whether the regulations used to prevent overfishing, which are usually some combination of size limits, bag limits and seasons, are restrictive enough to achieve their goals while still allowing anglers to catch all, or at least nearly all, of their annual quotas.

Recently, some anglers’ rights organizations, along with some members of the fishing tackle and boating industries, have argued that such delays, and the uncertainties inherent in MRIP, justify exempting recreational fishermen from annual catch limits, the most effective tool that managers use to prevent harmful overfishing.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which governs all fishing in federal waters, did not always require managers to prevent overfishing; that requirement was only added in 1996, when the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed in an effort to reverse a decline in fish abundance that was being felt on every coast of the United States.

The Sustainable Fisheries Act’s changes to Magnuson-Stevens, and a subsequent appellate court decision that required all fishery management plans to have at least a 50% chance of achieving their goals, led to the recovery of many fish stocks. Even so, as the Washington Post reported, fishery managers “regularly flouted scientific advice and authorized more fishing than could be sustained.” In response, when Magnuson-Stevens was reauthorized in early 2007, it included provisions for mandatory, hard-poundage annual catch limits for almost all federally-managed fisheries, and made fishermen accountable for any overfishing that might occur.

The imposition of such annual catch limits sharply reduced the incidence of overfishing; in 2016, overfishing only occurred in about 8% of all federally-managed fisheries. But in some recreational fisheries, such as Gulf of Mexico red snapper, where anglers chronically exceeded their quotas, annual catch limits forced fishery managers to impose very restrictive, and very unpopular, regulations.

Thus, the various angling groups are now trying to force federal fishery managers to take a step backward, to a time when various “alternative” fishery management measures, which often failed to prevent overfishing, were still used. To that end, they are urging Congress to pass the so-called Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Modern Fish Act).

The Modern Fish Act provides, among other things, that federal fishery managers would “have the authority to use alternative fishery management measures in a recreational fishery (or the recreational component of a mixed-use fishery) in developing a fishery management plan, plan amendment, or proposed regulations, including extraction rates, fishing mortality targets, harvest control rules, or traditional or cultural practices of native communities.”

While that doesn’t sound too malign, given that guidelines issued by NOAA Fisheries already allow managers to employ such measures, current law does not relieve managers of their obligation to establish and enforce an effective annual catch limit, even when alternative management measures are used. There are other provisions of the Modern Fish Act that would create substantial exceptions to the annual catch limit requirement.

The ultimate goal of Modern Fish Act supporters is to clearly to eliminate annual catch limits in many, if not all, recreational fisheries.

The American Sportfishing Association (ASA), which represents the recreational fishing tackle industry, states that the Modern Fish Act will allow “exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit.” ASA doesn’t explain what it means by “don’t fit,” but given that the sole purpose of annual catch limits is to prevent overfishing, the only time they wouldn’t “fit” is when ASA would let overfishing occur.

The Center for Sportfishing Policy, an organization dedicated to finding political solutions to fisheries issues, is less cryptic. It is encouraging people to support the Modern Fish Act because it “Modifies the annual catch limit requirement to allow for more adaptive approaches.”

Modern Fish Act supporters frequently point to Atlantic striped bass as a fishery management success, achieved through “alternative” measures. A closer looks shows that such alleged success is illusory. The most recent update to the striped bass stock assessment, released late in 2016, indicated that the female spawning stock biomass (SSB) hovered just 1,200 metric tons above the overfishing threshold, and was 13,000 metric tons below the SSB target.

When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) adopted measures to increase the SSB, it required recreational fishermen within the Chesapeake Bay to reduce their landings by 20.5%, compared to what such landings had been in 2012. However, ASMFC failed to impose an annual catch limit on the Chesapeake anglers. As a result, in the first year of the new management plan, Chesapeake Bay anglers didn’t just fail to meet the mandated 20.5% reduction; they increased their landings by more than 58% instead.

And because ASMFC failed to adopt any sort of recreational accountability measures, Chesapeake Bay striped bass landings have climbed even higher since then.

Such a result shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with how “alternative” management measures function in the real world; if anything, striped bass represent a best-case outcome. ASMFC’s management of the tautog fishery provides a much starker example.

By 1996, biologists knew that tautog were overfished, and experiencing severe overfishing. ASMFC adopted a management plan intended to end overfishing and begin rebuilding the stock, but imposed no annual catch limit and no accountability measures on the recreational fishery. As a result, the states never imposed sufficiently restrictive regulations on anglers. In 2007, more than a decade later, ASMFC admitted that “The trend in total stock biomass and spawning stock biomass has been generally flat and at low levels since 1994.”

In other words, the “alternative” management measures, which did not include annual catch limits, had failed.

So ASMFC tried again. But a stock assessment update released in 2016 found that fishing mortality was still twice the level recommended in 1996. Twenty years of “alternative” management, without annual catch limits, failed to come close to rebuilding the stock.

As such examples make clear, the “Modern” Fish Act is not really modern at all. By seeking to infuse recreational fishery management with the sort of management measures that so often failed in the past, it is not merely reinventing the wheel, it is reinventing a square wheel design that is ill-suited to moving the management process forward and restoring fish stocks to the sort of abundance that benefits everyone.

Without the discipline imposed by annual catch limits, managers will always be tempted to dither, and avoid imposing the sort of controversial and politically unpopular restrictions that are so often needed to rebuild fish stocks.

So yes, there are people telling anglers to support the Modern Fish Act, and “alternative” management measures.

But what they’re not telling anglers is that such measures are, in truth, an alternative to effective fishery management, and to rebuilt and healthy fish stocks.

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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