The "F" Bomb

The "F" Bomb

There's no room for flexibiity in sound fisheries management.

  • By: Ted Williams
big bad bluefish.jpg

For most of our nation’s history, marine-fish management in American waters has been one grand experiment in flexibility. It wasn’t until the 1970s that we noticed that our flexibility, a tenet of Jeffersonian democracy, had allowed foreign fleets to denude our inshore and offshore fish stocks.

That’s when we began to question British biologist Thomas Huxley, whose theories on marine resources had governed our management strategies since he uttered them in the mid-19th Century (not that he was responsible for any change at that time). “I still believe,” Huxley had declared, “that the cod fishery…and probably all the great sea-fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we can do seriously affects the number of fish.”

After two centuries of flexibility, we kicked out most of the foreign fishing fleet with the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. It established a 200-mile coastal limit and poured money into the decrepit U.S. fishing fleet, thereby doubling its size by 1983 and vastly improving its efficiency. It also set up eight regional management councils comprised of “user groups”—mostly commercial-fishing interests—thereby retaining flexibility.

“Giving commercial fishermen a stake in their own future,” as Congress kept putting it, sounded wonderful. It was so progressive, so Jeffersonian, so 1970s, so flexible. But somehow assigning the job of regulating to those who required regulation didn’t work. It was as if Congress had recruited grade schoolers to write their scholastic curricula. On all three coasts the result was day-long lunches.

Quotas could be modified by short-term, short-sighted “economic considerations,” and such considerations always “justified” overfishing. Whenever scientists cautioned against overfishing, the “stake holders” would overrule them, regulating in flexibility. “There’s no such rush to rebuild,” was the mantra. Rebuilding while continuing to overfish is, of course, impossible. Overfishing means you kill fish faster than they reproduce, that you’re in a hole and digging. So after 20 years of the stake-holders strip-mining federal waters, our marine fish stocks were in worse shape than when the strip-mining had been handled by foreigners.

In 1996, for the first time in 220 years, Congress steered away from flexibility in marine-fish management with the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which amended Magnuson by outlawing overfishing and mandating speedy recovery of depleted stocks.

But the councils devised creative ways of complying with the letter of the law while violating its intent. New England stake-holders, for example, rejected hard quotas (which had worked well elsewhere, especially in the Mid-Atlantic), favoring instead “days-at-sea and trip limits” because they knew they don’t work. Here and elsewhere the fishing fleet added more flexibility with quantum leaps in gear efficiency. Overfishing continued.

So in the waning days of 2006, Congress amended Magnuson yet again. As in 1996, commercial fishing, party-boat and charter-boat interests demanding flexibility were given ample time to speak and were carefully listened to at multiple hearings and on the House and Senate floors. Their retrograde legislation for using economic considerations to manipulate scientifically determined quotas was debated and rejected.

Instead, Congress strengthened Magnuson with the “Fishery Conservation and Management Amendments.” Delaying recovery was made more difficult by the requirement that annual, sustainable catch limits be in place by 2010 for depleted stocks and by 2011 for other stocks. The amendments also strengthen the role of scientists in council decision-making, provide for National Environmental Policy Act compliance in management plans, expand research, improve data and enhance habitat protection. The new law isn’t perfect; it retains the “stake-holder” councils, for example. But it’s a huge step forward.

And it’s working. Magnuson (remember, strengthened in 1996 and strengthened further in 2006) has restored depleted bluefish and king mackerel. Other mackerels have a brighter future now, as do all species managed under Magnuson including mahis, amberjacks, Pacific salmon and bottom-fish—some of which are in the process of dramatic recovery thanks to this legislation.

Bottom-fish are vital parts of a complicated machine we don’t understand and therefore don’t manage. For example, many fly rodders who would never dream of targeting bottom-fish and are ambivalent about their mostly sad status would be astonished to learn that the stomachs of the stripers, bluefish and weakfish we release are often packed with juvenile scup. Fish sought by fly rodders also eat summer flounder (a k a fluke).

Speaking of summer flounder, the reduced quota for this species has probably caused the most angst among flexibility advocates. But now, thanks to the forced diet imposed on fishermen by Magnuson, the stock’s age and size structure is returning to normal; biomass of spawners has increased at least fourfold. And in 2008, precisely as the scientists had predicted, natural recruitment was the highest in 26 years.
Summer flounder are on track for recovery by 2013; angry, impatient commercial and recreational fishermen won’t have to wait much longer to kill lots more.

Even highly migratory fish like tunas, sharks, marlin and sailfish now have a better chance for recovery because their forage—most notably Atlantic herring—will be better managed.

Enter Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), who in 2008, only a year after President Bush signed the “Fishery Conservation and Management Amendments,” introduced the “Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act.” Pallone’s bill, resurrected this session and now introduced in the Senate by Charles Schumer (D-NY), would supposedly do the impossible—that is, permit overfishing while restoring stocks. What it would really restore is the pre-1996 system of manipulating scientifically determined quotas with short-term, shortsighted economic considerations.

Of course, the proponents of Pallone’s bill don’t call what they’re trying to do “overfishing,” arguing instead that the rebuilding timeline of 10 years is “arbitrary,” that there’s no such rush. For instance, timelines are not “a moral issue” to Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act co-sponsor Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who accuses the National Marine Fisheries Service of harboring “an anti-fishing bias.” What attracts Frank and his allies to the bill is that it would allow continued procrastination while shielding managers from both lawsuits and the obligation to rebuild fish populations.

“Give the councils 50 years, and they will still opt for the largest short-term harvest,” one enlightened council member told me. “In year 47 we’ll be right where we are today, with the industry people weeping about their hard lot and demanding flexibility.’”

The Oz figure behind this attempted gutting of Magnuson is the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), which reports that Pallone’s bill has the backing of 100 fishing groups and industry members. The board and staff of the RFA is dominated by fishing-boat builders, fishing-gear manufacturers, advertisers fronting as fishing writers, party-boat owners and charter-boat owners who call themselves sport fishermen but who, under Magnuson’s definition, are commercials because they retain and sell their clients’ catch.

There’s scarcely anyone involved who doesn’t make money killing fish—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the RFA would get more respect if it was honest and called itself a trade association.
When it comes to limiting your catch, the RFA believes in strict dieting except when hungry. And it’s always hungry. According to the RFA, the only thing standing in the way of more fillets in America’s freezers are environmentalists.

RFA Director James Donofrio describes the amended Magnuson Act as the dirty work of “anti-fishing environmental groups who have lobbied against our efforts” and who control the minds of anglers “still drinking the Kool-Aid of the anti-fishing environmental groups.”

Such pronouncements puzzle me because I have worked with or for all the national environmental groups, and I know for a fact that not one is anti-fishing. Can the RFA mean local environmental groups? They’d have to be incredibly powerful.

The RFA has confused me further with its Web site announcement that “environmentalists are pushing their agenda on marine fisheries issues affecting you.” For anyone paying attention that’s great news because environmentalists are unwavering in their support for restoring natural fish abundance with sustainable fishing, but the RFA didn’t mean to commend them. Somehow it fancies that anglers and environmentalists are different people on different and opposing sides. But the questions I have for the RFA are these: Are we not all environmentalists? Do you know of people anywhere, even among your staff and board, who are not in favor of their surroundings?

Railing against what it calls “the devastating management measures put forth due to the reauthorization of the Magnuson Act” and lobbying for evisceration via the Pallone bill is United We Fish. Members include the RFA, Conservation Cooperative of Gulf Fishermen, United Boatmen of New York, United Boatmen of New Jersey, New York Sportfishing Federation, Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen’s Association and the Fishing Rights Alliance.

Last October, some 300 flexibility activists staged a demonstration outside NMFS’ regional offices in Gloucester, Mass., shrieking hysterically and hanging NMFS personnel in effigy. On February 24, 2010, they staged a similar protest on the steps of the Capitol Building in D.C., shouting down NMFS director Eric Schwaab when he tried to address them and waving placards adorned with swastikas and such messages as “NMFS: No More Fake Science”; “Fishing is a God-Given Right”; “Seniors Against Fishing Closures”; “Lubchenco: Obama’s Fox Guarding the Nation’s Fish Houses”; “NMFS Starving America”; and “PEW Something Stinks.”

“I’m not sure how much this stuff helps them,” remarks Pew Charitable Trusts’ Lee Crockett, propped up as an alleged anti-fishing boogeyman by the RFA and other United We Fish members to frighten anglers into parting with their money. “Is this the face of the recreational-fishing community we want Congress to see? When our elected officials think of recreational fishermen they think of the RFA. It’s the loudest, and it gets the attention. Congress needs to hear from conservationists who don’t want to kill the last fish.”

Recently, United We Fish has allied itself with commercial-fisheries consultant, Garden State Seafood Association flack and tireless recreational-angling critic Nils Stolpe. Magnuson, he laments, has been “distorted by anti-fishing activists” so as to blight “what used to be vibrant fishing communities that dotted our coastlines from Maine to Florida, along the Gulf coast, and from San Diego to Seattle.” It is this law, he contends, that has caused the “onslaught that started at about the time of Florida’s net ban in the early 1990s; fishing business after fishing business has had its doors shut by ill-conceived, inflexible and unnecessary laws and regulations supposedly put in place in the name
of ‘conservation.’”

Never have I read anything by Stolpe suggesting that overharvest has had something to do with his industry’s travails or that sustainable fishing might solve them. The industry’s argument that “economic considerations” dictate a need for overfishing can be summarized as follows: Our current economic ill health leaves us no choice but to destroy the stocks on which our economic health depends. Stolpe and the United We Fish members he speaks for have yet to grasp what all good parents have learned—that sometimes the kindest word one can utter is “No.”

At times, United We Fish members approve of good science, and at other times they do not; it all depends on the findings. Occasionally, both personalities manifest simultaneously.

For instance, in the RFA press release of December 16, 2009, Stolpe complains that “the scientists have been put in charge, and as the list of closures and restrictions…painfully demonstrates, the Act has been turned into a weapon that is now being used against fishermen and fishing communities.” But in the very same release RFA’s Donofrio congratulates United We Fish members for supposedly “calling for scientific based Magnuson reform” and Bob Zales, mouthpiece for United We Fish member Conservation Cooperative of Gulf Fishermen, proclaims that his people “fully support real science-based management.”

Good marine fishing depends on good science. Without accurate data gathered by NMFS fisheries observers deployed on commercial vessels the agency cannot determine which stocks are sustainable. NMFS fisheries observers are the eyes of the agency; it uses their information to measure health and abundance of fish populations. These data enable councils to develop regulations that can protect fish and the future of recreational and commercial fishing.

So marine conservationists saluted the RFA when it hired former NMFS fisheries observer John Depersenaire as its “Fisheries Policy and Science Researcher”—that is, until they learned about his criminal record. In 2006, he received five years probation and was ordered to pay restitution of $29,541 for, in the agency’s words, “embezzling” money and “falsifying data from 59 trips” for which he was a no-show while under contract as a NMFS observer. Such is the RFA’s commitment to science.

Fortunately, there are lots more recreational anglers defending Magnuson than attacking it. Few are more knowledgeable than Charles Witek, chair of the Coastal Conservation Association’s Atlantic States Committee, vice chair of its national government relations committee and former member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

“What happens to striped bass and tunas if New England herring aren’t properly managed?” Witek inquires. “We don’t know because ecosystem management hasn’t come along far enough. Right now there’s a lot of concern that pair trawlers are stripping herring inshore. We tried flexibility all the way up to 1996. It didn’t work. That’s why we passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act; that’s why we strengthened the act in 2006. Fishermen made it clear that they can’t manage themselves. Turning back the clock is only going to harm the fisheries and public interest.”

And then there’s Doug Olander, the smart, tough editor of Sport Fishing magazine whose editorials are not to be missed by anyone who loves the sea and its life forms.

“While technically I am bound by law to honor our mortgage agreement, requiring me to make payments of a specified amount each month, I am hereby declaring a ‘Flexibility in Meeting My Debts Proclamation,’” he writes in a mock letter to his fictitious home-mortgage officer, Mr. Farnsworth Buttingham. “I am not for a moment suggesting I shouldn’t pay what I’ve promised. But, really, why insist on doing that in 15 years? Why not stretch that out to 50 or 60 years? And why have set payments when, in a lean year I’d rather pay much less.”

As The New York Times recently editorialized: “The Magnuson deserve a chance to work, without meddling. They have been mischaracterized by their opponents as arbitrary and inflexible, but in truth they have been designed to use the best available science and to be regularly re-examined and adjusted, as the evolving health of fisheries permits.”

Magnuson stipulates that depleted fish stocks have to be rebuilt in 10 years, but only in cases where this is biologically possible. Pew’s Lee Crockett makes this point: “All the fish these people complain about being denied enough of are past the 10-year limit. These fish have 20- and 30-year rebuilding plans. So congressmen are signing onto a bill that doesn’t help commercial or recreational fishermen.” Dr. Roy Crabtree, Regional administrator for NMFS in the Southeast, has publicly, repeatedly and vainly made this same point.

Some of the paranoia about NMFS and fear and loathing of Magnuson is being fed by the Obama administration. For example, I understand and sympathize with the RFA’s strident objection to “catch shares,” which NMFS has been prescribing as if they were Dr. Kickapoo’s Elixir for Rheum, Ague, Blindness and Insanity. Catch shares—a way of divvying up fish stocks after sustainable catch limits have been set—would be more acceptable to recreational anglers if they were better designed for recreational anglers.

But the catch shares being proposed by NMFS would privatize a public resource. “By establishing a catch-share program for any species, regulators essentially cast the recreational/commercial allocation in stone,” explains Witek. “That assures each individual commercial fishermen his portion of the harvest, while placing most of the regulatory burden on the public, since an increasing human population is likely to lead to an increase in anglers. More and more private citizens have to share a fixed resource pool.” And catch shares can be consolidated and hoarded by the biggest, richest commercial-fishing operations.

Both Witek and Olander accuse NMFS of political ineptitude, and both use as an example the timing of the amberjack closure in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Closing the fishery with almost no advance warning last October was bad enough,” Olander writes in his January 2010 editorial, “but to announce such a closure during the last days of the very popular annual fishing rodeo in Destin, Florida, simply reiterates how out of touch and some fishery council members seem to be with the recreational fishing community.”

When such valid complaints cascade from ethical anglers and genuine conservationists like Witek and Olander, one shudders to think of the hay being made by people who seek to discredit NMFS and thereby gut Magnuson.
But despite the new administration’s missteps, Witek cautions that it’s too early to pass judgment on its overall fisheries policies. “I think the test is going to be the Appendix 1 CITES listing for bluefin tuna,” he says. “If they’ve got the guts to support that, there’s hope for them. If they try to walk a middle line between conservation and tuna people, they’ll fall on their faces.”

Appendix 1 listing would not affect recreational or commercial fishing (except to dramatically improve both). But because it would reduce profits of charter captains and the commercial-tuna fleet by forbidding sale of giant bluefins to Japan, the RFA is fighting listing with everything it has. To give you an idea of the kind of money that’s at stake consider that on January 5, 2010 a single fish fetched $173,688.73 at Tokyo’s main fish market.

On October 27, 2009, Jane Lubchenco—chief of NMFS’s parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—made this declaration to the American Sportfishing Association at its annual meeting in San Diego: “It is my intention to improve our relationship. I look forward to a new era of cooperative relations between NOAA and anglers across the country.”

The Magnuson Act and our marine fish would be a lot safer if Lubchenco would get on with that.

Ted Williams has doggedly worked the Conservation beat for Fly Rod & Reel for more than two decades. His latest book is Something’s Fishy.