Despite a hard-fought campaign to manage stocks in federal waters, managers balk
Regular readers of this blog know that, for better or worse, I’m a member of the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council. We met last week to, among other things, consider moving forward with a full analysis of adding river herring and shad as one of our federally managed species. It’s early Saturday morning, and I’m sitting here, still trying to make sense of what happened.
I’m not going to go into detail about why these fish are in bad need of federal conservation and management, because I already did this in a blog about a month ago: We Can Restore River Herring. If you haven’t already read this you probably should before moving on. The short version is that they are badly depleted, and while they are managed rather conservatively in state waters, at sea where they spend most of their lives, they get hammered. These days it’s hard to find anyone who disagrees that they are caught incidentally in large numbers in the enormous small mesh nets that a small but prolific mackerel and sea herring fleet uses.
For a long time, the recreational fishing public has been pissed-off about what is essentially a completely unmonitored and unaccounted for catch of river herring and shad at sea, and while significant steps are being taken inshore to stop the decline, at-sea fishing mortality continues unabated. Both the Mid Atlantic and New England Councils, which manage fishing in the waters where such bycatch occurs, have been slow to act, but in the last few years amendments have passed that seek to address this. Are the current amendments sufficient? In my opinion no, because they don’t invoke the statutory requirements that only come with including them as federally managed “stocks in a fishery”.
The public overwhelmingly and unequivocally supports managing river herring and shad at sea by including them as stocks in the Mid Atlantic Council’s Mackerel Squid and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan. In fact, the issue generated over 37,000 public comments in support of federal management. Because shad are a recreationally important fish, and because river herring are an extremely important forage fish and bait source for a bunch of recreationally important species, an undeniably significant portion of these comments came from anglers and recreational fishing clubs/organizations. Despite the traditional default animus against regulation that tends to color commercial fishermen’s perception of regulation, there were plenty of comments in support of federal management from artisanal commercial fishermen. Of course, there were comments from conservation and environmental organizations who share our goal of restoring once-abundant river herring and shad runs, too. There was only one public comment on record against federal management from (you guessed it) a commercial fishing organization that represents the small-mesh-net fleet.
At the meeting, there were many supporters for the amendment, including concerned citizens, representatives of recreational fishing clubs, and commercial fishermen. They came from all over the East Coast to give public testimony specifically detailing their interest in the issue and representing diverse perspectives, but they all pleaded for the Council give full consideration to adding river herring and shad to the list of species we manage. While many of the comments were based on personal experience of the declines, others were based on the hard science. They were all, for the most part, passionate, articulate and compelling. The case for proceeding with a comprehensive analysis for full federal conservation and management couldn’t have been presented more clearly.
Unfortunately, despite acknowledgement by several Council members that the public’s voice was strong, the vote to advance federal management did not pass. It was as close as it could have possibly been: 10/9—a reflection of the influence such comments had on several “swing-vote” Council members.
There are a few things that are incredibly irritating about this, the first of which is that we weren’t even voting on whether or not to include river herring and shad as stocks in the fishery yet. The motion I had offered, and which MD recreational Council Member Steve Linhard seconded, was simply to move forward with an “Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS). In other words, a full analysis of what it would look like should we decide to add the species as a federally managed stock, including various alternatives, as well as the proverbial “no action” alternative… An analysis we promised the public we would do when we approved the development of “Amendment 15” last June. Certainly, we owed the public at least that.
Unfortunately, there were Council Members who didn’t agree. Some felt that state management, along with a catch-cap on river herring and shad catch in the mackerel fishery, which we approved this past summer, was enough. It isn’t… particularly since that cap is virtually unenforceable because we currently aren’t able to provide the required observer coverage, nor do we have any control over net slippage events (two requirements stripped from the Amendment that dealt with the catch cap).
Federal management would have prioritized river herring and shad, and given us science-based overfishing boundaries, annual catch limits based on biology, and accountability measures, among other benefits. It also would have given us authority over what’s called “Essential Fish Habitat”, (note: more info on aforementioned blog). In short, it would have meant real, mandated conservation and management under a federal management plan requiring real rebuilding. There are indeed legitimate questions on how all of this would work. And certainly there is reasonable concern over how we would coordinate such management with the states as well as the New England Council. But part of the utility of the EIS is that it would have provided comprehensive answers to such questions.
The NMFS Regional Administrator argued that managing river herring and shad would require time and resources and that there would need to be tradeoffs. Given the cultural and economic importance of this species and the obvious public concern and loud call for action, it appeared pretty obvious to me that our constituency wanted us to fully consider those tradeoffs, which would have become clear in an EIS. Unless they were extraordinary, I’m certain the public would have wanted to make sacrifices to pursue conservation.
Yet, even after some extraordinarily compelling comments by Council Members, especially Preston Pate from North Carolina (who spoke of how his dying father had asked whether we were doing enough to protect these fish. Preston’s answer was no). The Council still voted my motion down, as mentioned, by a very narrow margin. One vote could have made it go the other way.
So let’s talk about those votes. I’ve attached the vote count below, so you can see whether your state representatives voted for or against the Amendment the recreational fishing community worked hard to advance. I encourage you to thank the Council members from your state who supported moving forward with the EIS and express your disappointment to those who didn’t. Contact info can be found here: Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council Members.
Now, I have to note that there are two Council Members who hold recreational seats, and claim to represent recreational fishermen, yet voted with the small mesh net industry against the motion, despite the loud and frequent pleas by the recreational fishing community in support. They are Tony DiLernia from NY and Jeff Deem from VA. A vote in favor from either of those two would have likely meant passage. Now, before you get angry and fire off a nasty email, keep in mind that these are good people who believed they were doing the right thing. That said, they need to be accountable for those votes, and they need to know who it is they are supposed to be representing. You need to let them know! Here are their email addresses: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
So… where does all this leave us? It’s not all gloom-and-doom for river herring and shad. Instead of moving forward with an EIS the Council adopted an alternative motion to establish a “working group” that would work to “holistically” address river herring and shad mortality at sea. To me, that sounds pretty weak… at least on the surface. Once someone tells me they are establishing a “working group”, it pretty much means a lot of worthless talking and nothing getting done. It’s hard for me to believe that this won’t be another group of pointy-heads that will sit around a table once every few months burning tax dollars and continuously saying things like “there isn’t enough data to make rational decisions, bla, bla, bla…” while river herring and shad continue to crash and the public pleads for us to do something about it. But hell, maybe I’m wrong.
One thing that’s for sure is that after all the public comment and the close vote, this Council and its appointed “working group” is now under the gun to produce results. I’m encouraged by the fact that the Council will review the progress of the working group on a regular basis, with the first review occurring at the June 2014 Council meeting. According to the Council press release “In three years, the Council will conduct a formal evaluation of the effectiveness of the approved working group approach and determine if it is appropriate, or if a different strategy is required to protect river herring and shad.” In other words, if the working group doesn’t produce in three years, I suspect the stocks-in-a-fishery Amendment will slide right through.
So… In short. I do believe that river herring and shad suffered a big loss this week. I’ve actually been pretty bummed out about it for several days. But I also believe there is immense opportunity to move river hearing and shad conservation forward here. I think that real protection/conservation/management in federal waters for river herring and shad will happen, it just won’t happen as soon as many of us would have hoped. It will of course take a continued push from the recreational fishing community as we move forward with this working group. I’m really hoping anglers continue to stay engaged, and I think they will. The group of people who turned out for this week’s meeting were awesome. Diverse, passionate, articulate and inspiring. I’d like to publicly thank them here. Even though we lost, this sort of public engagement gives me hope…. that we will prevail.
|MAFMC Vote||Stocks in the Fishery Motion|
|Robins (VA)||Chair-no vote|