COVID-19 Impacts Fisheries Management

Photo by John McMurray

COVID-19 has disrupted businesses, people’s lives, and government functions. The fisheries management system has not been immune to its effects.

At the state, regional and national level, some fisheries management meetings have been postponed, while others have been converted from in-person meetings to webinars where only the most urgent matters are decided.

Here in New York, the March meeting of the Marine Resources Advisory Council was completely cancelled. The April meeting, which normally reviews whatever fisheries bills are pending in the state legislature, was replaced by a webinar; the only topic on the agenda was the state’s commercial summer flounder fishery, and how regulations might be amended to address the impacts of COVID-19.

Similar cancellations are occurring in other states.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Spring Meeting on May 5 and 6 will also be held as a webinar. While a few management actions will be taken, two of the most anticipated votes, which have already been postponed at earlier meetings, will again be put off until some future date.

Such postponement put the brakes on what had been a successful effort to move Atlantic menhaden management away from a traditional single-species model, which emphasized sustainable harvest, to an ecosystem-based approach that considered menhaden’s role in the food web.

A motion to adopt a fishing mortality target and overfishing threshold for menhaden that was based on menhaden’s role as a forage fish for striped bass and a few other species was made at last February’s ASMFC meeting. That motion was postponed until May, because the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board wanted to examine how the abundance of predators other than striped bass might affect such target and threshold. Because of COVID-19, that vote has been postponed again. It may be held in August, but could be deferred farther into the future.

The delay probably won’t have too much impact on the Atlantic menhaden stock, since current harvest isn’t too different from the level set out in the deferred motion. But another postponed motion could end up hurting Atlantic striped bass.

In April 2019, ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Bass Board) considered a motion to begin an amendment to its striped bass management plan. That motion was postponed until the Bass Board’s August meeting. In August, it was postponed again until this coming May. Now, because of COVID-19, it has also been deferred to some future date.

Viewed in one light, the delay does no harm. The amendment, if it is ultimately created, will probably significantly change the way striped bass are managed. G. Ritchie White, the Governor’s Appointee from New Hampshire, said in August 2019 that “I’ve certainly been getting a lot of emails about don’t start an amendment, it will mean that you’re going to be less conservative. An amendment doesn’t mean less or more conservative, and I’m certainly going to support an amendment, and I’m going to support an amendment to be more conservative.”

Mr. White is a long-time champion of striped bass conservation, and he will certainly try to assure that any new amendment contains meaningful conservation measures. However, not every member of the Bass Board feels the same way, and there is no assurance that Mr. White will prevail. There are Bass Board members, such as Maryland’s Michael Luisi, who feel that the current biomass target is “unrealistic” and have called for it to be lowered. If their arguments win out, striped bass would be managed for lower abundance over the long term, and the chance of stock collapse would increase.

Given such conflicting opinions, and the uncertainty as to which view would be reflected in any new amendment, there is some comfort in maintaining the status quo.

However, in responding to a recent benchmark stock assessment’s finding that the striped bass is both overfished and subject to overfishing, the Bass Board blatantly ignored a provision in its own management plan that states “If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level [within 10 years].” Instead, it seems to be planning to address rebuilding in the proposed amendment. Thus, any delay in initiating such amendment will also delay the recovery of the striped bass stock.

At the federal level, delay isn’t always an option. Federal deadlines for preparing plans to rebuild overfished stocks still apply, regardless of COVID-19, even if a meeting is held online and not in person. So the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the ASMFC’s Bluefish Management Board will convene in a May webinar to review comments to the bluefish rebuilding plan, so that rebuilding plan can move forward and be in place for the 2022 fishing season. Other federal management measures, also intended to prevent overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks, must continue to move forward as well.

However, other federal management issues may be deferred. In New England, fishermen are asking state and federal officials to delay plans for offshore wind development, arguing that because of COVID-19, they will not have sufficient opportunity to present their concerns about how such development could impact their fishing grounds. The New England Fishery Management Council has already delayed action on a final amendment to its groundfish management plan, which would have set minimum observer levels on boats in the northeast multispecies fishery, in order to relieve pressure on commercial fishermen already overwhelmed by COVID-19.

But the virus’ biggest impact on fisheries management may be its impact on the data collection process. In that regard, 2020 may be a lost year, because data collection is being impaired at every level.

Estimates of recreational catch, effort and landings are compiled by the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). Such efforts depend, in part, on in-person interviews conducted with anglers returning from fishing trips, which allow MRIP surveyors to count and measure such anglers’ catch. This year, because of COVID-19, most states have suspended such in-person interviews, and such suspensions will almost certainly last so long as states place restrictions on non-essential activities.

That means that this year there will be little or no data collected on anglers’ catch during the spring, and probably during all or part of the summer. No one yet knows whether recreational catch data will be collected this fall. In many states, the for-hire party and charter boats have been deemed “non-essential” businesses and not allowed to sail, while in some states, fishing or access to fishing areas has been significantly curtailed; with fewer anglers able to access the resource, 2020 landings will necessarily be different than they would be in a typical year. Such COVID-driven changes will make it very difficult for fisheries managers to gauge the effectiveness of new and existing regulations. That will be particularly important in the case of new rules that were recently adopted to end overfishing in the striped bass fishery and protect the overfished bluefish stock.

On the commercial side, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has issued a temporary rule that allows it to waive observer coverage requirements for commercial fishing vessels in the event that either “Local, State, or national governments, or private companies or organizations that deploy observers pursuant to NMFS regulations, restrict travel or otherwise issue COVID-19-related social control guidance, or requirement(s) addressing COVID-19-related concerns, such that it inconsistent with the requirement(s) or not recommended to place an observer(s);” or “No qualified observer(s) are available for placement due to health, safety, or training issues related to COVID-19.”

Such lack of observer coverage will make it nearly impossible for NMFS to produce accurate and timely estimates of bycatch, dead discards, protected species interactions and other impacts of the unmonitored fisheries.

The collection of fisheries-independent data will also be affected. State surveys used to detect trends in recruitment, and in the abundance of juvenile and adult fish, are being cancelled or delayed. NMFS’ Northeast Fisheries Science Center did not conduct its spring bottom-trawl survey. Normally conducted on hundreds of randomly-chosen sites located between North Carolina and Maine, the spring trawl survey is used in calculating recruitment and abundance indices that inform the assessment of many commercially and recreationally important species, including summer flounder, black sea bass, haddock and cod. The loss of a year’s survey data will hinder managers’ ability to effectively manage such species.

Thus, COVID-19 has significantly hampered fisheries managers’ ability to assess, manage and rebuild coastal fish stocks. The cancellation of in-person fishery management meetings has delayed the development of some, but not all, management programs. The lack of catch data makes it impossible to determine the current efficacy of fisheries regulations, while the cancellation and delay of fisheries-independent surveys prevents managers from gauging the current health of fish stocks, along with the trends in recruitment and abundance.

The resultant lack of data will clearly inject greater uncertainty into the management process. In the face of such uncertainty, fisheries managers should proceed with caution, lest they discover, when the data starts flowing again, that fish stocks are worse off than they were when 2020 began.

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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