The Strange Appeal of Mediocre Fisheries Management

Blowfish on ice

We were trying to protect the blowfish, and for a few hours, it looked like we would. Then things got derailed by a group of folks who clung to the status quo.

Pufferfish puffed

A pufferfish puffed

Blowfish, more properly known as “northern puffer,” range along the entire eastern seaboard of the United States, although they’re probably most common between southern New England and North Carolina. Unlike many members of the family Tetraodontidae, or pufferfish, the northern puffer has flesh that lacks tetrodotoxin, the toxin that makes eating other pufferfish, such as the notorious Japanese fugu, a true adventure in dining.

Commercial blowfish landings are modest, so most blowfish end up in markets and restaurants close to where the fish were caught; consumers outside coastal New England and the mid-Atlantic states are generally unfamiliar with the species. Nonetheless, the fish are popular where they are sold. Not only is the meat white and firm, but it is practically boneless, with only a flat and easily removed backbone separating two solid pieces of flesh that resemble nothing so much as large chicken nuggets. For that reason, northern puffers are often marketed as “chicken of the sea” or “sea squab.” Their good-tasting meat has also earned then the nickname of “sugar toads” along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

There is also a small recreational fishery. Some anglers target the species, while others catch them incidentally while fishing for something else. Because puffers are often found deep inside sheltered bays and estuaries, and because they are not fussy about what they’ll eat, they are an ideal fish for shorebound and novice anglers, and are a particular favorite of young fishermen, who enjoy watching them swallow air and puff up into the somewhat bristly ball that gave the species its name.

No state currently regulates either the commercial or the recreational blowfish fishery, a fact that probably contributes to the extreme swings in puffer abundance. They can be very abundant for a few years, and then all but disappear from a waterway for many years before returning in unexpected abundance. When that happens, landings spike as both commercial and recreational fishermen take advantage of the unregulated fishery, only to drive down abundance and cause another drought until an unusually strong year class arises.

The boom-and-bust nature of the northern puffer fishery is revealed in Marine Recreational Information Program data for the past forty years. Such data shows recreational landings of 77,000 northern puffers in 1981, which increased for a couple of years before falling back to 55,000 fish in 1984, then increasing modestly before suddenly spiking to over 2,170,000 fish in 1988 and staying well over 1,000,000 puffers per year until another decline began in 1993. Over the next 16 years, recreational puffer landings swung between 180,00 and 1,070,000 fish per year, remaining somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 fish for most of that time.

Annual puffer landings began spiking again in 2010, hit a high of 5,100,000 in 2011, and have remained above 1,500,000 fish in all but three of the years since.

Recently, members of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council (MRAC) have asked the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to consider adopting regulations to protect the northern puffer, in the hopes of eliminating the wild swings between abundance and absence and create a more stable fishery.

The recreational sector, in particular, would benefit from a dependable puffer fishery. Ever since the winter flounder fishery collapsed two decades ago; since larger minimum sizes on summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass, adopted at about the same time, pushed anglers seeking those fish into deeper water; and, more recently, since bluefish became overfished, there has been little for anglers limited to sheltered bays and other protected waters to pursue during most of the summer, when recreational activity is at its peak.

A healthy population of puffers would provide a good-to-eat and easy-to-catch alternative for casual family fishermen who do not want to expend the time and effort needed to successfully hunt striped bass and weakfish, and for anglers who, for whatever reason, must seek their fish from the beach, docks, and piers. An abundance of puffers would also provide a viable target for both party boats and private vessels on those days when the wind blows and makes it unpleasant, and often unsafe, to venture into the ocean to target other species.

Sugar toads

AKA Sugar toads

Crafting blowfish regulations is a difficult task, as there is little information available to guide fishery managers’ decisions. Still, some things are known. Puffers are a short-lived fish, with few surviving for more than four years. They spawn from late spring through late summer. About 50% of puffers spawn when they are seven inches long, a length that some reach by the end of their first summer; 100% spawn at a length of eight inches. A seven-inch-long puffer can produce about 80,000 eggs, while an eight-inch puffer can produce nearly twice as many. Few puffers grow to be more than ten inches long.

The DEC conducts regular, fishery-independent surveys in New York’s inshore waters. A substantial majority of the puffers caught in such surveys are less than one year old, suggesting that fishing mortality might be attenuating the age structure of the population. Puffers are slow, and not strong swimmers, so they probably don’t engage in significant migrations; if that is the case, state management can have a meaningful impact on local populations.

MRAC meetings often see heated debates over management measures, but when faced with the information that the DEC provided with respect to northern puffers, those MRAC members who attended the November 2022 meeting seemed to reach a quick consensus, at least with respect to recreational regulations. No one seemed to oppose an 8-inch minimum size, and all seemed to agree on a bag limit that fell somewhere between 10 or 12 fish at the low end to perhaps 25 to 30 fish on the high side.

The DEC agreed to draft a few sets of potential regulations that the MRAC could review early in 2023.

But the consensus reached at the November meeting lasted for less than one day. By the middle of the following morning, at least one member was having second thoughts, concerned that the 8-inch minimum size was too high, and would prevent shorebound anglers from retaining the immature, 4-, 5-, and 6-inch puffers that some currently took home by the pailful.

It’s not completely clear why some MRAC members had such a quick change of heart, although it was rumored that one member of the public, who was observing the November meeting, had telephoned members of the recreational fishing industry later that day and gave them a heads-up about what was said. Such calls led to worry that the eight-inch minimum size might cause some decline in bait and tackle sales.

The benefits that might accrue from such a size limit were apparently given far less consideration.

It’s a pattern that we’ve seen far too often, in too many commercial and recreational fisheries. The fishing industry tends to worry that regulations intended to rebuild and manage fish stocks might cause an immediate reduction in the income already accruing from a stressed, or even a depleted, fishery, and thus opposes new management measures, even though such measures, if successful, might lead to far greater long-term benefits for both the fish and the fishing industry.

New York’s winter flounder provide a perfect example, for they, too, once supported an unregulated recreational fishery that has since fallen upon hard times.

When the flounder population began to decline during the late 1980s, the DEC sought to adopt regulations that might halt, and perhaps reverse, the slide. A strict bag limit was proposed. The recreational fishing industry, and in particular the party boat fleet, immediately objected, saying that, while some regulations might be needed, their customers must retain the “perception” that they could have a “big day,” and go home with a pailful of fish.

Such comments led to regulations that were significantly less restrictive than those that DEC biologists had originally recommended. The industry was pleased. Flounder abundance continued to decline.

Eventually, scientists determined that the winter flounder population was badly overfished. In response, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted very restrictive regulations, that included a 2-fish bag limit, a 12-inch minimum size, and a 60-day season. At a 2009 MRAC meeting, one member suggested shutting the fishery down completely in an effort to increase flounder abundance.

A recreational fishing industry representative objected, “noting that the recreational fishing community is in trouble and they needed to have the opportunity to fish. She pleaded that the Council not take the more conservative approach (i.e., harvest moratorium). They need to keep the shops open.”

New York didn’t close its winter flounder season, even though very few flounder remained in its waters. While New York anglers landed nearly 14,500,000 winter flounder in 1984, by 2022 estimated landings for the entire state had fallen to a mere 21 fish. Winter flounder don’t “keep the shops open” anymore.

Perhaps a changing climate made the flounder’s collapse inevitable; it is possible that no management action, however severe, could have prevented the stock’s demise. But if the angling industry had been willing to accept meaningful management measures thirty or forty years ago, when the flounder began its decline, it is also possible that a smaller but nonetheless viable winter flounder fishery might yet remain.

Given the reaction to proposed blowfish management measures, it seems that the industry is willing to repeat the mistake that it made with winter flounder, not that many years ago.

Northern puffers are a data-poor species. The DEC has no way of knowing whether New York’s puffer population is currently healthy and sustainable, or whether it is badly overfished and on the verge of collapse. When data is so scarce, fishery managers are wise to compensate with an abundance of caution.

Right now, in New York, puffers support a very modest fishery; for the years 2017 through 2021, annual landings averaged about 216,000 fish, well below the 860,000 bluefish, 930,000 black sea bass, or 7,000,000 scup that the state’s anglers took home in 2021. Because most of those blowfish are either caught from shore or from small boats, the economic benefits accruing from the recreational fishery are probably very modest as well. But older anglers, who participated in New York’s fishery during the 1950s and 1960s, say that puffers were far more abundant then than they are today, and could be caught in much greater numbers.

It is very possible that, with appropriate management, puffers could be returned to their past abundance, an abundance that could generate far more recreational opportunities, many more good meals, and far greater economic benefits than the fishery does today. But to make that happen, the recreational fishing industry must be willing to invest in the future, by accepting some restrictions on today’s so-so fishery.

It’s possible such investment will never pan out, and that tackle shops might suffer the lost sales of a few packs of bait, a few dozen hooks, and a handful of sinkers, but fail to reap compensatory rewards. The fear of such failure may well underlie the industry’s reluctance to accept regulation; the mediocrity that they know may seem a far better alternative than an uncertain bet on future abundance.

Yet, if our fisheries—not just blowfish, but every fishery that is currently under stress—are ever to reach their full potential, whether that potential is measured in recreational opportunities, food production, or economic benefits, both fishermen and the fishing industry must reject “good enough” and insist that managers take whatever actions are needed to develop fisheries that are healthy and sustainable in the long term.

Some mistakes will be made, and some management efforts will fail. Yet fisheries that are merely “good enough” just—aren’t.

For while mediocrity may seem familiar and safe, it is also unstable. As the winter flounder, as well as the Atlantic cod, the shortfin mako, and a host of other species, have taught us, mediocrity too easily morphs into decline. And that, in the end, is far, far harder to fix.

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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