The holiday season is over; the new year is well underway. As days begin to lengthen, anglers begin to look forward to the coming season, which grows closer with every passing day.
But for federal fishery managers, things aren’t going anywhere, for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is one of the many agencies that has been stopped in its tracks by the current government shutdown.
The shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for anglers in the Mid-Atlantic region. In November 2018, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (Science Center) completed benchmark stock assessments for two of the region’s most important recreational species, striped bass and summer flounder. In most years, we’d be checking the Science Center’s website regularly, waiting for the peer review reports on the assessments to be released. But this year, so long as the shutdown goes on, the website won’t be updated, and we won’t have access to the reports until it is.
In the short term, the shutdown will probably have the greatest impact on summer flounder and the recreational and commercial summer flounder fisheries.
Each year, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Mid-Atlantic Council), working in conjunction with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board (Summer Flounder Board), sets commercial and recreational specifications for the following year’s summer flounder fishery, which in include annual harvest limits, commercial gear requirements, and guidelines for recreational size limits, bag limits, and seasons.
The commercial specifications are set in August. However, because recreational specifications are largely dependent upon anglers’ landings in the previous year, recreational specifications for the summer flounder fishery are not set until December, at a joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Council and Summer Flounder Board. While such joint meeting was held in December 2018, the participants agreed to delay adopting recreational summer flounder specifications until after the benchmark stock assessments’ release in early 2019.
That only made sense, because it was likely that the benchmark assessment would have rendered any specifications set before its release obsolete, and require that they be revised.
Now, the continuing government shutdown has cast a harsh shadow across the specification-setting process.
Current regulations, adopted in December 2018, established a 2019 commercial summer flounder quota of 6.67 million pounds, and a recreational summer flounder harvest limit (RHL) of 5.15 million pounds. Both the commercial quota and RHL represent a 16% increase over 2018 limits. Under normal circumstances, such increased RHL would translate into more liberal regulations for anglers (provided that such anglers didn’t overfish in the previous year).
But since 2019 recreational specifications were neither set at the December 2018 Mid-Atlantic Council meeting nor adopted in NMFS’ regulations, 2018 specifications, based on the smaller 2018 RHL, will remain in effect until 2019 specifications are adopted. Because of the government shutdown, no one knows when that will occur.
A meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), which was called to review the benchmark stock assessment, has been postponed indefinitely. According to the Mid-Atlantic Council’s website, neither the peer review reports on the benchmark assessment, a summary of the assessment, nor a Mid-Atlantic Council staff memo addressing future catch limits are yet available. Given that the availability of such documents relies, in part, on government personnel, they will remain unavailable until the shutdown ends.
A joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Council’s and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Advisory Panels, originally scheduled for February 1, 2019, has also been indefinitely postponed.
The Mid-Atlantic Council and Summer Flounder Board had expected to review and probably revise the 2019 commercial specifications, and adopt 2019 recreational specifications, for summer flounder at a joint meeting held from February 11-14, but that will no longer be possible. Federal law requires that, for such action to be taken, notice of the meeting and proposed action must be published in the Federal Register at least 14 days prior to the meeting. But the Federal Register, too, is affected by the government shutdown, and the deadline for publishing the meeting has passed. Thus, the Mid-Atlantic Council has cancelled its February meeting, and the specification-setting process has been thrown into chaos.
Depending on what the new summer flounder stock assessment reveals, the resultant delay could do real harm to either the fish or to the summer flounder fishery. If the assessment confirms managers’ previous views of the health of the stock, any extended delay in adopting a higher RHL would force anglers to fish under overly-restrictive regulations, deny them the ability to bring a few more fish home, and deprive angling-related businesses of the benefits that come with an expanded fishery.
On the other hand, if the new assessment shows that the stock is in worse condition than previously believed, the increased commercial quota could lead to overfishing. Revised commercial and recreational specifications, designed to prevent any further decline, would need to be implemented. If the assessment shows that summer flounder abundance has fallen too low, a rebuilding plan might have to be put in place to restore the stock. Failing to take such remedial actions would cause further damage, that would require even more stringent measures to repair.
Unfortunately, until the peer review reports are released and the SSC meets, it will be impossible to know whether the benchmark assessment brings good news or bad, and managers won’t know whether regulations need to be tightened, relaxed, or just left as they are. Until the Mid-Atlantic Council may again hold its meetings, such regulations cannot, in any event, be changed.
Striped bass managers will also remain in limbo until the benchmark assessments are released. That has many anglers concerned, as bass abundance has declined noticeably in recent years, and many believe that remedial action is long overdue. Because the bass are managed by ASMFC, fishery managers will be free to take appropriate action once they receive the assessment. But there is also one federal twist that everyone is watching.
At its October meeting, ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Striped Bass Board) considered a federal proposal to open some federal waters north and west of Block Island, Rhode Island to striped bass fishing. The Striped Bass Board felt that they couldn’t properly evaluate such proposal until they had analyzed the new benchmark striped bass stock assessment, and asked NMFS to take no further action on the proposal until after the Striped Bass Board’s February 2019 meeting. If the benchmark assessment is not made available to the Striped Bass Board before such meeting is held, NMFS will not have ASMFC’s timely input on that controversial issue.
While striped bass and summer flounder are important Mid-Atlantic species, the effects of the government shutdown aren’t limited to them, nor to the Mid-Atlantic region.
In other regions, the impacts of the shutdown have also been severe.
In the North Pacific, regulations governing the summer red king crab fishery cannot be set, and issues affecting other important species, including halibut and rockfish, cannot be decided.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the shutdown has made it impossible for commercial fishermen to renew fishing permits, and is forcing boats to stay tied to the dock as their owners lose an increasing share of their annual income. The shutdown will also prevent the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council from finalizing a new amendment to its reef fish plan, which would allow states to play a greater role in managing the recreational red snapper fishery, at its January meeting.
In New England, fishermen are concerned that, without federal workers to keep tabs on the fish being landed, the sustainability of already-stressed fish stocks could be put at risk. John Pappalardo, who heads up the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, noted that “If fishermen go over their preassigned fishing quotas, it threatens the health of the fisheries and the economic well-being of the fishermen themselves.”
On every coast, important research is not getting done, necessary permits are not being issued, and critical enforcement of the laws that protect our fisheries is not taking place. People, and fish stocks, are being hurt.
For fish and for fishermen, the end to the shutdown can’t come fast enough.