The Cost of Delay in Fisheries Management

A strong Magnuson-Stevens Act allowed striped bass to grow to sustainable levels, like this one caught September, 2016 off Block Island by Steve Brustein of Maine on No Fluke Charters.

Striped bass; photo via Dave Monti

Fisheries management breeds controversy.

No matter how badly a management measure is needed, some people will argue against it. Sometimes they challenge the science, and say that a stock is healthier than biologists claim. Sometimes, they allege that the economic harm that a measure may cause outweighs any benefit it might bring to the stock.

And sometimes, after all of their arguments have been made and lost, they drop their fervent opposition, and merely ask that the status quo be maintained for just a little while longer, to give people a chance to collect some more data and figure out whether additional management measures are, in fact, needed.

People tend to equate taking no action with doing no harm, so such requests often find a sympathetic audience. Yet by taking no action when action is called for, managers can do real harm to fish stocks.

A failure to end overfishing will lead to decreased abundance, which in turn could lead to a stock becoming overfished. A subsequent failure to rebuild the overfished stock increases the risk that such stock could collapse.

Even if stock collapse doesn’t occur, failing to promptly implement needed management measures only assures that, when such measures are finally adopted, they will be much more restrictive than they would have been if they were put in place before the stock experienced further decline.

North Carolina’s southern flounder fishery provides a case in point. I could summarize what’s going on, but it probably makes more sense to just quote Dr. Louis Daniels, who used to be the state’s top fishery manager and spelled it all out in a recent letter to the Carteret County [NC] News-Times.

I spent 20+ years working for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) in hopes of rebuilding depleted fish stocks and providing a healthy resource for all to enjoy and support our coastal economies. The failure of our county leadership, past and present, to support meaningful fisheries reform and programs may be at its zenith.

…As a brief background, the commercial fishery as we know it has declined for decades and is going out of business. Fish stocks have declined to historically low levels and many claim this is the result of regulations and the ‘boogey man de jour.” The fisheries that anchored the Carteret County fishing economy such as blue crab, spot, croaker and southern flounder have no limits on the quantity that can be harvested and most have no size limits. Efforts to rebuild these stocks and return Carteret County to its historical glory as a fishing community and destination have met resistance at every turn.

Proposed fisheries regulations are consistently met with disdain and objection by the County Board of Commissioners, believing they are protecting the few commercial jobs left. For example, the state had the opportunity to reduce harvest of summer flounder by 30% in 2006 and rebuild this most valuable finfish fishery by 2016. By doing essentially nothing since 2006, due in part to political pressures, the stock has continued to decline and remains severely depleted. The reduction in harvest now needed to rebuild the stock is 72%. Talk about going out of business…

Unfortunately, such thinking isn’t limited to North Carolina. Up in New England, the cod decline has been going on for a very long time, but fishermen have continually avoided efforts to rebuild the stock.

As Discover magazine reported in 1995, “Between 1977 [soon after Congress passed the original Fishery Conservation and Management Act] and 1983, the number of boats fishing out of New England increased from 825 to 1,423. The new boats were bigger and equipped with the latest electronic fish-finding equipment…The cod catch on Georges Bank alone peaked in 1980 at more than 53,000 tons. Then it started to decline. As the stock declined, the mortality inflicted by fishing rose…in New England, fisheries biologists knew it was happening, and said so.”

Yet the response to the stock decline was not harvest reductions, which were opposed by most in the industry. Instead, “During the 1980s the New England [Fishery Management] council proved itself unwilling to control fishing. Indeed, one of its early actions, in 1982, was to eliminate catch quotas…as [National Marine Fisheries Service] scientists warned of declining stocks of cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder, the council dithered…”

The result was not surprising. New England cod stocks crashed. Three decades later, the 2017 operational stock assessment for Georges Bank cod concluded that “stock condition is poor.”

The Gulf of Maine stock is doing no better. The 2017 operational assessment found that such stock was both overfished and subject to continued overfishing, with abundance somewhere between 5% and 8% of the target level. Yet even though the results of such assessment were confirmed by an independent study performed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a prominent New England fishermen still argued that the science was wrong, and that “Where these fish exist in the western Gulf of Maine is greater than it has ever been in my lifetime.”

Such unreasoned opposition to management measures makes it easy to understand why cod stocks are not yet rebuilt, even though scientists first recognized that they were in trouble close to forty years ago.

I saw the same thing happen with winter flounder in my local Long Island waters. In 1984, New York anglers took home nearly 14,500,000 of the small flatfish. But when the population went into a noticeable decline in the late 1980s, the recreational fishing industry opposed meaningful regulations that might have halted the decline. Instead, they argued for status quo and, when that was not an option, for size limits, bag limits and seasons that were less restrictive than the science called for. Not surprisingly, with such inadequate regulations in place the stock continued to decline, to the point that even after very restrictive regulations were adopted more than a decade ago, the 2019 season yielded so few fish that surveyors interviewing anglers last spring couldn’t find a single fisherman who caught one.

Yet fishermen still argue that New York’s recreational flounder season should be extended, so that if an angler happens to catch a flounder while fishing for another species out in the ocean, they wouldn’t have to release it.

Right now, we’re seeing another species, the striped bass, threatened by unreasonable delay.

A benchmark stock assessment, completed late in 2018, has found that the striped bass stock is both overfished and experiencing overfishing. The striped bass management plan clearly states that when overfishing occurs, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) must adopt management changes that reduce fishing mortality to or below the target level within one year, and that when the stock becomes overfished, the Management Board “must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [no more than ten years]. [emphasis added]”

Yet despite the mandatory language of the management plan—”must” doesn’t seem to contemplate any Management Board discretion—the Management Board has not yet taken action to initiate a ten-year rebuilding plan. At its May meeting, it did vote to initiate an addendum process that, if completed, will hopefully see fishing mortality reduced to the target level in 2020. But the management plan’s requirement to initiate a 10-year rebuilding plan was completely ignored.

That wouldn’t be permitted if striped bass were a federally-managed fishery, as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires overfished stocks to be rebuilt within ten years, if biologically possible. But the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) management actions do not have to comply with any legal standard; there is no legal requirement that ASMFC rebuild overfished stocks. Even if the ASMFC takes an action that is clearly arbitrary and capricious, and contrary to the best available science (or, in this case, to its own management plan), such action is not subject to judicial review pursuant to the federal Administrative Procedures Act.

There is even a faction on the Management Board who seek to amend the management plan, in a way that would permanently lower the biomass target, allow a higher level of fishing mortality, and so increase the risk to the spawning stock. Given the ASMFC’s lack of legally-binding management standards, it could take those actions even if they have no scientific support.

That’s a problem, because it seems that people never learn.

Despite the lessons taught by southern flounder, winter flounder and cod, it seems that some fishermen, and some fishery managers, continue to delay needed striped bass management measures, rather than face the political pushback that always occurs when new restrictions on harvest are proposed.

Given the importance of the striped bass fishery, the price of doing nothing to rebuild the overfished stock could be particularly high.

About Charles Witek

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

1 comments on “The Cost of Delay in Fisheries Management

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