Top photo by John McMurray
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) requires that “Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while producing, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.”
MSA also states, in part, that “The term ‘optimum,’ with respect to the yield from a fishery, means the amount of fish which (A) will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems; [and] (B) is prescribed as such on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor… [internal formatting omitted]”.
Given that language, one might think that, before establishing annual catch limits for all managed species, the regional fishery management councils would engage in meaningful discussion of how to achieve optimum yield from each fishery.
In the real world, that doesn’t happen.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) does a very good job of explaining how annual catch limits are calculated. Using the 2020 summer flounder specifications as an example, calculations begin with the overfishing limit. The MAFMC’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, reducing that figure to account for scientific uncertainty, then sets the acceptable biological catch (ABC), which is then allocated to the commercial and recreational sectors. Each sector’s expected discards then deducted from its allocation, to establish the commercial quota and the recreational harvest limit.
Both the MAFMC’s staff and the biologists who sit on the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee (Monitoring Committee) prepared detailed reports outlining how they made such calculations; neither report even employed the term “optimum yield,” much less discussed it in detail, despite its relevance to the annual catch limit.
Such lack of optimum yield analysis is typical, not only at the MAFMC, but also at all of the regional fishery management councils. The focus is always on harvest; despite being specifically mentioned in the MSA, considerations like increased recreational opportunities, or social and economic considerations that might lead to reduced landings, are rarely considered.
It’s hard to place blame for the lack of meaningful optimum yield analysis on the regional fishery management councils. NOAA Fisheries’ website includes a page “Setting an Annual Catch Limit,” which is subtitled “Learn how annual catch limits are set for U.S. fisheries.” That webpage sets out a process indistinguishable from that used by the MAFMC.
The NOAA Fisheries web page doesn’t even mention the concept of optimum yield, even though the MSA directs that producing optimum yield is the goal of fishery management measures.
As a practical matter, omitting a detailed optimum yield analysis probably makes sense for summer flounder, as well as for other species, such as cod and the various groupers, which are targeted by both commercial and recreational fishermen because they are valued as food. While summer flounder, for example, might be fun for anglers to catch, those anglers pursue them because they want to bring them home for dinner, and not just for the sport of catching them, and then letting them go.
In such situations, there are no economic, social, or environmental considerations that might justify reducing optimum yield below maximum sustainable yield; the key considerations of maximizing food production and recreational opportunities are best addressed by keeping both the commercial quota and recreational harvest limit at the highest sustainable levels.
That isn’t the case with recreational fisheries that include a significant catch-and-release component. For those, an optimum yield analysis is needed, but very rarely performed. Regional fishery management councils instead still focus on yield, with little or no thought given to the economic and social considerations that might justify setting optimum yield well below maximum sustainable yield, or the benefits that might accrue to the nation if a recreational species were managed for abundance and recreational opportunity, rather than solely for landings and food production.
Such issues have emerged in connection with the Bluefish Allocation and Rebuilding Amendment (Bluefish Amendment) that is being prepared by the MAFMC.
While bluefish support a small commercial fishery, their oily and often strong-tasting flesh cause them to be less popular table fare than white-fleshed fish such as summer flounder, black sea bass, or cod; they command a much lower price when brought to market. The scoping document for the Bluefish Amendment reported that between 2013 and 2017, fishermen received, on average, only 71 cents per pound for bluefish, far less than the four dollars per pound that markets paid for striped bass and summer flounder at that time.
Many recreational fishermen also dislike eating bluefish but very much like to catch them because of the fight that they put up when hooked. As a result, more than 60 percent of all bluefish caught by recreational fishermen are released. In such a fishery, “the greatest overall benefit to the Nation” comes not from focusing on food production, but on maximizing recreational opportunities.
And maximizing recreational opportunities means maximizing the abundance of live bluefish in the water, not the number of dead bluefish lying on the dock.
Estimates of angler effort, provided by the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), make that very clear. Bluefish were relatively abundant In 1985, when anglers made about 13,890,000 directed bluefish trips, including about 465,000 trips made by the for-hire sector. As bluefish abundance declined, trips declined, too.
By 2000, in response to low abundance; directed trips had fallen to 5,110,000, including just 154,000 made by the for-hire fleet. Then, as abundance rose modestly, angler effort showed a modest increase as well, rising to 7,530,000 directed bluefish trips in 2010. Then, as the population fell to near time-series lows in 2019, trips fell again, to 5,330,000 trips, with fewer than 46,000 of those made on for-hire vessels.
With such a clear correlation between bluefish abundance and directed recreational bluefish trips, the MAFMC seems obliged to consider whether the optimum yield for bluefish should be reduced well below maximum sustainable yield, in order to capture the economic and social benefits conferred by an abundant bluefish population and the recreational opportunities that such abundance would provide.
Yet the MAFMC has given, at best, only cursory consideration to the issue. The MAFMC website provides 20 separate documents relating to the Bluefish Amendment, created over the course of 38 months, that include two scoping documents, one public hearing document, a MAFMC staff memo, and the summaries of three bluefish fishery management action team meetings.
Across all of those documents, despite its importance in the MSA, the term “optimum yield” appears only twice, once in a summary of comments that I made at the first scoping meeting, and the other in a presentation to the MAFMC which stated why the Bluefish Amendment is needed.
But the MAFMC never took a good look at what managing for optimum yield would look like in the bluefish fishery.
MAMFC staff did acknowledge that, at the first scoping meetings, recreational fishermen argued that “Recreational management should focus on maximizing abundance over landings,” and also argued that managers should “Offer consideration to the economic and intrinsic value of bluefish to the recreational fishery.” Such concerns were included in a Supplemental Scoping and Public Information Document released late in 2019, after an operational stock assessment found the stock to be overfished.
But the MAFMC members gave those concerns little consideration, and instead focused on maintaining bluefish landings, rather than bluefish abundance. At a May 2020 joint meeting of the MAFMC and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Bluefish Management Board, Dustin Leasing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Bluefish Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, noted that “A lot of comments [at the scoping hearings] talked about identifying the intrinsic value of fish left in the water, as well as the catch and release aspect of the fishery. A lot of people called for maximizing abundance…”
That was the last time that the word “abundance” was uttered at the meeting.
Thus, it’s hardly surprising that, when the Public Hearing Document for the Bluefish Amendment was released in February 2021, the analysis of the social and economic impacts were heavily skewed toward food production, and ignored recreational opportunities.
The Public Hearing Document’s discussion of different commercial/recreational alternatives notes that “an increase in allocation to the recreational sector could allow for the liberalization of [management] measures, potentially providing positive social impacts.” It only considers the “positive social impacts” that might be generated if anglers are able to keep additional fish; nowhere in the document is there mention of the positive social impacts generated by greater abundance, that would allow anglers to catch, but not necessarily harvest, more bluefish.
Yet any comprehensive analysis of optimum yield should demand that such benefits be considered.
The Public Information Document’s economic impacts section shows the same bias, considering only the impacts of landings, and not of abundance. The document states that “Increases in bag limits might increase angler satisfaction as well as recreational for-hire and independent angler trips which would result in increased expenditures and effort,” completely ignoring the MRIP data that strongly links recreational effort, in both the private and for-hire sectors, to abundance, not to bag limits.
The Public Information Document also says, “In theory, if the decision to transfer [recreational quota to the commercial sector] is based on a pattern of underutilization by the recreational sector, negative socioeconomic impacts to the recreational sector from such transfer may not be realized,” again equating the concept of “utilizing” a fishery with harvesting, and not merely catching, fish. No mention is made of the negative socioeconomic impacts of reduced abundance that might result, at either a coastwide or local level, from a transfer of fish that would otherwise go unharvested, in the form of reduced recreational opportunity and a reduction in fishing effort linked to lower bluefish availability.
In what may be the most tone-deaf passage in the entire Public Hearing Document, the MAFMC states that recreational management measures “are frequently adjusted in order to strike an appropriate balance between conservation and angler satisfaction,” a statement that completely ignores the fact that in the recreational bluefish fishery, conservation that leads to greater abundance increases both angler satisfaction and angler participation in the fishery, as demonstrated by the MRIP effort data.
A rigorous optimum yield analysis would reveal that truth, for bluefish and for other primarily recreational species. But to regional fishery management council members who are focused only on yield, such a concept is seemingly beyond their comprehension.
Optimum yield is arguably the core concept of the MSA, the hinge around which all of the laws’ other provisions pivot. Yet it is also a concept that is given little more than lip service in council discussions and in fishery management plans.
If the nation’s living marine resources are to be managed properly, and in full compliance with the law, that needs to change.