Mid-Atlantic Fisheries: Time To Abandon the Past, And Embrace the Future

Bluefish, photo via NOAA

“Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose…”
Billie Holiday,
from “God Bless the Child

When jazz singer Billie Holiday belted out the words to “God Bless the Child” back in 1941, she certainly wasn’t thinking about fisheries. But some of the words of that song still apply, as fisheries managers, reflecting fishermen’s aversion to change, continue to award fish to people and to fisheries that caught them in the past, rather than changing allocations and management approaches to best suit the conditions that exist today, or are expected to exist in the future.

Life on the coast is constantly changing, yet decades-old harvest patterns, which make no sense today, continue to determine how fisheries are managed.

That’s curious, because the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) requires that federal fishery managers manage each species for “optimum” yield, which is defined, in part, as “the amount of fish which will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation. [emphasis added]”

The words “will provide” are important, for they are cast in the future tense. Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t define “optimum” yield based on past practices (“once provided”) or even on today’s situation (“provides”), but explicitly requires managers to adopt measures that will create the greatest benefits to the Nation in the future.

It may be the most ignored injunction in all of Magnuson-Stevens. Despite the many environmental, economic, and demographic changes that have occurred on the coast since Magnuson-Stevens’ passage in 1976, fisheries management actions are still often based on what happened three or four decades ago.

Consider the summer flounder.

In 1991, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Mid-Atlantic Council) adopted Amendment 2 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Summer Flounder Fishery which, among other things, allocated 60 percent of annual summer flounder landings to the commercial fishery and 40 percent to recreational fishermen, based on what managers believed landings to be during the period 1980-1989. Commercial allocations to the states were based on the same decade’s landings.

Yet the summer flounder fishery is much different than it was in the 1980s.

Today’s summer flounder stock is deemed to be fairly healthy. In the late 1980s, the stock was badly overfished; it reached a historically low level of abundance around 1989. Also, ocean temperatures have risen since 1991, causing a geographical shift in stock abundance.

The most recent benchmark assessment stated that

In recent years the proportion of recruits in the south has declined while the proportion in the middle area has increased. Spawner biomass is more evenly split between the middle and south regions, but similar to recruits, the proportion of spawner biomass in the south has declined as the proportion in the middle and northern areas have increased.

…summer flounder are shifting northeast over time, and this shift has continued in recent years…the shift northward is evident even in small fish. Indeed, recruits appear to be shifting northward at a faster rate than spawners, suggesting that they are not merely tracking the expansion of spawners northward. There are apparent changes in spatial distribution of summer flounder over the last four decades with a general shift northward and eastward. Spatial expansion is more apparent in the years of greater abundance since about 2000, although it has continued even with the most recent declines in biomass.

Yet despite that forty-year shift in regional abundance, state allocations are nearly the same as they were in 1993.

The Mid-Atlantic Council has revisited state allocations on a number of occasions, but has never revised them in a way that accords with the geographic shift in summer flounder abundance. Instead, the base allocation still awards 27 percent of commercial landings to North Carolina and 21 percent to Virginia, just as it did 30 years ago, even though fewer fish are found off those states today. New York, which is now closer to the center of summer flounder abundance, is still only awarded about 7.5 percent of the landings.

The northern states’ efforts to amend state quotas to better reflect the current distribution of fish was criticized by fishermen who reside in the states that enjoy the largest quotas.

At a meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Council’s and the ASMFC’s summer flounder advisory panels (advisors), one such fisherman called the effort a “quota grab,” while another argued that “people have invested in licenses and businesses related to this fishery. Changing allocations will affect business models and business plans.” Yet another opposed reallocation because “with any reallocation, there are winners and losers…Reallocation will bankrupt people in the south…Managers shouldn’t take what people have, and give it to other states.”

Them’s that got shall get, and them’s that not shall lose, indeed…

The Mid-Atlantic Council did make one minor concession, amending the current allocation so that, when the commercial quota exceeds 9.55 million pounds, each of the states with significant summer flounder fisheries will receive 12.35 percent of such overage.

To put that in context, the 2021 commercial summer flounder quota will be 12.49 million pounds. Under the 1991 quotas, New York’s share of that would have been about 955,000 pounds, while under the recently adopted amendment to that allocation, it would be nearly 1,095,000 pounds—about 140,000 pounds more. While that is a slight improvement over the status quo, the fact that North Carolina, which has seen the proportion of summer flounder off its shores decline significantly in the past 30 years, will still be able to land nearly 3 million pounds each year demonstrates that the revised allocations still fall far short of reflecting the current distribution of fish.

The recreational/commercial summer flounder allocation is also mired in the past.

As noted earlier, that allocation was determined by landings in the 1980-89 base years, when the summer flounder stock was badly overfished. ASMFC data shows that the stock was overfished from about 1984 through 1996, and that commercial landings exceeded recreational landings during those years. But that was the only extended period when commercial landings were higher. For the rest of the time series, which spans the years 1982-2018, recreational landings generally exceeded the commercial harvest.

Based on more current commercial and recreational landings, it can be easily argued that the recreational share of the harvest should be raised. Yet in the past, every time the Mid-Atlantic Council considered increasing that allocation, the suggestion was quickly shot down.

Now, anglers have been given another reason to seek a bigger share of the summer flounder catch.

The Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) has developed a new and more reliable way to measure recreational fishing effort, catch, and landings. When the new methodology was applied to past estimates of recreational summer flounder landings, it turned out that anglers actually accounted for 45 percent of overall landings during 1980-89 base years, so even if managers want to keep looking backward, anglers should receive more summer flounder than they are allotted today.

A similar story plays out for two other Mid-Atlantic Council-managed species, black sea bass and scup. Allocations for both species are also based on years when stocks were overfished, while revised MRIP estimates show that anglers were responsible for a larger share of the catch during those years.

The Mid-Atlantic Council and the ASMFC have initiated a reallocation amendment that could revise the recreational/commercial allocations of summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass, but such amendment is running into resistance similar to that which plagued the summer flounder state allocation process. Advisors are saying things such as “No matter how many fish you give any group they will never be satisfied and it will be that way from now until eternity. Therefore my advice is to maintain the status quo,” and “I think this reallocation amendment should be dumped in the trash bin of history.”

Once again, those who are currently awarded most of the fish have no desire to share. Whether their opposition will ultimately doom the allocation amendment cannot yet be predicted, but their comments do not bode well.

Yet allocation isn’t the only issue cursed by managers’ seeming desire to live in the past. The way fisheries are utilized can be impacted, too.

Bluefish are largely a recreational fishery; the commercial fishery is allocated just 17 percent of the landings. Furthermore, they aren’t popular food fish, so commercial fishermen get very little for those that they catch; the average price remains well under $1 per pound. Recreational fishermen used to keep most of the bluefish that they caught, but that has changed. Since 1999, anglers have consistently released about two-thirds of the bluefish that they catch.

Thus, the bluefish fishery has become a true recreational fishery, in which the fish are sought primarily for the enjoyment of catching them, and not for food. To bluefish anglers, abundance is far more important than landings.

But bluefish managers are still committed to a backward-looking philosophy that emphasizes landings, and not abundance. The current management plan includes a provision that negates the primary purpose of catch-and-release angling—leaving more fish in the water so that they can be caught again.

Instead of encouraging anglers to release their fish, Amendment 1 to the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan includes a provision that incentivizes harvest. It reads “If the commercial quota was less than 10.5 million lbs, the quota could be increased up to 10.5 million lbs. if the recreational fishery was not anticipated to land their entire allocation for the upcoming year.”

Instead of seeing the fish that they release lead to increased abundance and a healthier spawning stock, that provision means that anglers merely see their released fish lead to a larger increase in the commercial quota. That can only make some anglers ask, “Why release them at all?”

In August 2019, an update to the bluefish stock assessment found that the stock was overfished. Since Amendment 1 to the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan was adopted in 1998, anglers had reason to hope that, when the Mid-Atlantic Council began to draft a new amendment to rebuild the stock, it might abolish the quota transfer provision.

In a rebuilding fishery, after all, it made sense to use released fish to increase abundance, and not merely to increase the commercial quota.

Unfortunately, the Mid-Atlantic Council didn’t see things that way. When it met with ASMFC’s Bluefish Management Board in August 2020 to discuss the draft rebuilding amendment, it never even considered ending the transfer of recreational quota to the commercial sector. Such transfers will continue, despite the evolving nature of the bluefish fishery.

Maximizing sustainable yield has always been the primary goal of saltwater fisheries managers; the concept is too deeply rooted in the past for anyone to seriously think of abandoning it, regardless of current circumstances.

It’s time for the Mid-Atlantic Council, and all fisheries managers, to start thinking about how to best structure fisheries, so that they will continue to provide the greatest possible benefits to the nation 10, 20 and even 50 years in the future, and stop worrying about how fisheries looked 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

Bluefish photo via NOAA

About Charles Witek

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

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