This is What Rebuilt Fisheries Look Like

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working, let’s not mess it up.

Mid-states Fisheries Management Council needs to reauthorize the Magnusson-Stevens Act

A nice summer flounder – picture by Capt. John McMurray

I’m Captain John McMurray and this is my blog.  I’ll be posting here once a week, save for those “emergency” circumstances where I’m on the water so much I just can’t get it done.  In those situations there may be a guest blogger.  In short, expect new content here once a week, starting now.

For context, more about me: I’ve run a successful light-tackle fishing charter operation for well over a decade, employing three boats and three captains.  I sit on the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional fishery management councils in the United States, as well as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Striped Bass Advisory Panel.   I’m also the Director of Grant Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, which has distributed over 30 million in equipment grants, much of that used by organizations focused exclusively on fisheries and marine habitat protection.

In this week’s blog, however, I’m writing mostly from the viewpoint of a charter boat captain, small business owner, and perhaps most importantly, a father.

From the business side, being a charter boat captain may seem like a dream, but it’s actually very difficult and quite stressful.  I know what you’re thinking:  “poor guy, he has to fish all the time” yet in this business, there are long hours (not just running trips but maintaining boats); early mornings and little time for sleep; demanding clients who are paying what seems like a lot of money to catch fish; and daunting overhead expenses – the kind that keep you awake at night.   Add to this the fact that at in my region fishing is seasonal, so most Captains, like me, have at least one other job they have to attend to.  Without a doubt, however, the most nerve-wracking aspect of this business is the dependence on a host of completely uncontrollable variables, such as weather, water temp, clarity, bait concentrations, salinity, chlorophyll levels, etc.  But… nothing is more important to a sustainable business model than an abundance of fish to catch.  Without such an abundance of fish, other variables matter little.

With that in mind, in this blog I’ll focus on summer flounder (aka fluke).   I’m having a banner fluke year.  There have been good numbers of large fish around since early May.  Summer flounder is actually one of several Mid Atlantic fish populations that are currently at or near historic high levels.  Yet several years ago they were so depleted I didn’t even bother with them.  Let’s take a brief look at the history to see what happened.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Sustainable Fisheries Act which with limited exceptions, set a ten-year deadline for rebuilding overfished stocks.  Summer flounder was badly overfished.  So, the Mid-Atlantic Council amended the summer flounder management plan to meet the new requirements, but it tried to balance rebuilding with the economic impacts on fishermen, and political pressure inevitably put too much emphasis on the latter.  As a result, when the 1999 quota was set, it only had an 18% chance of success.   The Natural Resource Defense Council (an NYC based environmental group) sued, demanding that the rebuilding plan have a reasonable chance of successfully meeting the 10-year rebuilding deadline.  In 2000, that suit ended with a landmark decision that required management plans to have no less than a 50% chance of ending overfishing and rebuilding a stock within the established deadline.

Congress, with what appeared to be overwhelming support from the American people, reaffirmed the need to rebuild overfished stocks promptly when it reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006, upholding the timeframe first enacted in the Sustainable Fisheries Act.  Revised language in the reauthorization explicitly directed fishery management councils to heed the advice of independent scientists on their science and statistical committees regarding the maximum harvest levels which will permit managers to rebuild fisheries on schedule, thus somewhat isolating the Council from political pressure to allow overfishing.

The Mid-Atlantic Council adhered to the new mandates and made a determined effort to rebuild overfished stocks.  As a result, it is now the only regional fishery management council where, to the best of its knowledge, no stock is overfished, none are subject to overfishing and just one (the tilefish) remains in the rebuilding stage.

Without-a-doubt, I’ve benefited from the Mid-Atlantic Council’s actions.  On the water, I see more fluke than I have ever seen in my 13 years as a Captain, or my 25 years as a saltwater angler.  This is one fishery where I don’t have to stress about abundance levels.  I wish I could say that about striped bass! (Note: will cover this in a future blog)

As I mentioned, up until the last few years I never even bothered with fluke, as the inshore fishery was composed almost exclusively of small, young fish.  The large ones were few and far between, and you generally had to go out to 60 or even 90 feet of water and fish with 10 or 12oz of lead if you wanted to catch them.  Today, summer flounder make up a substantial portion of my business, as 20-inch-plus fish are relatively abundant and can be caught in shallow water close to home.  They are really fun to catch on light-tackle and a ¾-oz bucktail, and of course they are great eating.  My clients really enjoy fluke fishing these days, and it seems to be consistently good from May to September, providing me and my clients something to target in the traditional “dog-days” of summer.

Business interests aside, I want to emphasize how important this fishery has become to my family.   Early in May of this year I took my 4-year old twins out for their very first fluke trip.  First drift in a spot less than 5 minutes from where we live, my son catches a 28” fluke.  Second drift my daughter sticks a 24” fish.  As is usually the case with 4-year-olds, attention spans ran out quickly, but only after several more large beautiful fish.  I was stoked!  My kids were stoked!  The look of pure and utter joy on their faces were worth more than any aforementioned business interest.  We now try and do such family trips at least once a week.  We all look forward to them.

This is what a fishery rebuilt under the current Magnuson Stevens Act looks like, and it exists because the Mid-Atlantic Council made the hard decisions and adopted the hard caps on harvest that they recognized were essential to successfully rebuilding the stock.

Those decisions were not popular at the time that they were made.  It was inevitable that there would be some economic pain associated with the summer flounder’s recovery, which was suffered not only by the commercial fishing industry, but the recreational fishing industry as well, which saw its seasons and bag limits shrink while the stocks recovered from decades of overfishing.     However, the facts now demonstrate that such pain has been well rewarded.

In the Mid-Atlantic, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, recreational fishermen caught some 2.7 million summer flounder in 1989. In 2011, after rebuilding, that number jumped to more than 21 million fish. That’s a 700 percent increase!  NOAA fisheries service’s numbers show angler trips over the last decade along the Atlantic Coast up 41 percent from the 1980s. In the Mid-Atlantic alone, according to the fisheries service, that has brought in an additional $1.4 billion in economic activity and supported 18,660 jobs.  On the commercial side, the success story is similar. Gross commercial revenues for summer flounder are up more than 60 percent since 2000, when the rebuilding plan was put in place. And, in total, all of the rebuilt fish stocks brought in, on average, $585 million in gross commercial revenues every year from 2008-2010.

During the rocky-road to recovery many in the fishing industry said rebuilding couldn’t be achieved — the rebuilding goals were too ambitious, the timelines were too tight, and that catch limits were too strict.  But it’s precisely because of such management action that we’re once again catching those larger, older summer flounder.  I take clients out on fluke trips now and know that we have a good shot at catching big fish.  Perhaps more importantly, I can take my family out with a reasonable expectation of catching a few keepers and so can other Dads.

Without a doubt the Magnuson Stevens Act requirements greatly benefited the general public, even if a few business interests may have suffered a short-term decline in profits.  But, as the aforementioned statistics show, even they now benefit from a fully restored stock.

The story is similar for other recreationally important fish the Mid Atlantic Council manages, such as black seabass and scup.  But of course the picture is not all rosy.  Some management problems remain.  In the summer flounder fishery, because the size limit is considerably higher than it has historically been (undoubtedly the reason there are large fish around now), the recreational discard mortality (about 10% of the throwbacks don’t survive) is significant.  This is a problem deserving of the Mid Atlantic Council’s attention, and it’s getting it.  Yet, I can’t help but note that the fishery has been rebuilt despite such discards, so overfishing was clearly a much bigger problem and, in the end, something eats those fish; they all go back into the marine ecosystem.  There are also serious “fairness” issues with the state-by-state allocation system that currently exists, but that is a complicated political issue deserving of full coverage in a future blog, and I do believe we are on the verge of working that one out.

In the black seabass fishery there are issues with uncertainty in the stock assessment and the way accountability measures are applied in the recreational fishery.  Because of imprecise estimates that show big picture trends rather than year-by-year accuracy, accountability measures such as pound-for-pound paybacks are not practicable.  But the Mid Atlantic Council is in the process of developing reasonable solutions to such problems.   Such individual solutions should be created by the competent regional councils as they arise elsewhere.  The changes in Magnuson some are suggesting to fix such regional problems will likely effect all fisheries, and they could have negative consequences across the board.

Regardless, summer flounder, and the other fisheries managed by the Mid Atlantic Council, provide a good example of how that Council took the right approach to management, setting hard catch limits and enforcing them, despite the political pressure brought by some narrow economic interests.  They stand in stark contrast to the still-depleted fisheries managed by, for example, the New England Fishery Management Council, which relied on various input controls such as trip limits, days at sea, etc. in order to avoid setting poundage limits on landings, and so never effectively reduced harvest.  Now truly painful measures are required because they failed to embrace effective measures—such as hard harvest caps – since the Sustainable Fisheries Act was enacted in 1996.

I’ve been directly affected by such failure, for while the summer flounder’s recovery has been spectacularly successful, the collapse of the winter flounder, jointly managed by the New England Council and the ASMFC, has been dismayingly sharp and complete.  In 1984, New York anglers harvested nearly 7,400,000 flounder; in 2012, they harvested only 43,500.  When NMFS finally realized the depth of the flounder’s distress in 2009, and closed the fishery in federal waters, ASMFC left the state seasons open.  But that doesn’t really matter to me, because instead of flounder fishing in March, I keep my boat on land because there are hardly any fish around.

Unfortunately, winter flounder are only one of the species managed, in whole or in part, by ASMFC that haven’t fared very well, precisely because that management body doesn’t have to comply with Federal Magnusson Stevens Act standards, may ignore overfishing and is not required to rebuild overfished stocks.  Weakfish, which used to be a substantial portion of my spring business, provide a good example.  Today they are virtually gone; the last stock assessment indicates that just 3% of the spawning stock remains, yet ASMFC refused to follow the advice of its scientists, who advised that closing the fishery was the only way that the stock might begin to recover by the year 2020.

Striped bass remains ASMFC’s only notable “success”, but the real success took place 18 years ago after things got so bad that many states imposed a moratorium on the fishery, and it was finally recovered under a management plan that protected 95% of the spawning stock.   Now, while it still hasn’t reached the spawning stock biomass or fishing mortality thresholds, it is declining rapidly.  ASMFC’s 2011 Stock Assessment Update states that the striped bass spawning stock biomass will fall below its threshold in 2017, which means that the stock will be overfished in four years.  Despite that fact, proposals to reduce harvest and stop the decline have been deferred or rejected by ASMFC’s striped bass management board, even considering that 99% of the public wants to see some precautionary action.

The point is that ASMFC rarely, if ever, takes action to avert a crisis.   Unconstrained by federal law so instrumental in recovering stocks like summer flounder, it generally waits until their managed stocks are on or beyond the threshold of disaster before they do anything.  That is not the way to manage fisheries that are so important to the public and the businesses like mine that depend on them. But that’s what you get when you don’t have firm rebuilding goals, deadlines, and accountability measures.

Abandoning the conservation and management provisions of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, in favor of an ASMFC-like model, as some in the recreational fishing community are now suggesting, is a step back in time that will ultimately hurt both fish and fishermen.  Firm rebuilding deadlines appear to be the only things that get managers, who are often under intense pressure from constituents to continue overfishing, to take action.  As unpopular as they may be, hard quotas represent the only approach that has ever fixed things.

There are certainly improvements to the law that should be made.  The most important is to create a funding source for the science needed to produce better stock assessments, as well as funding for improved data collection and monitoring of our managed fisheries.  Black seabass provide a good example of such a need.  Fishermen argue that there are plenty of black sea bass around and that landings can be safely increased, but given the currently available information, managers can’t prudently concur.  The only way to find the real answers is to dedicate adequate financial resources.

We also need better protection of forage and guidance on “ecosystem management”.  The ecological consequences of fishing – “ecosystem overfishing” – are rarely considered when catch limits are set fishery-by-fishery.  We know through experience that even what is commonly referred to as “sustainable fishing,” especially of keystone predators or prey, can cause dramatic shifts in ecosystem communities.   Councils need statutory guidance on developing regional Fishery Ecosystem Plans that apply basic ecosystem principles to all fishery management decisions.  A new National Standard requiring that all management measures prevent ecosystem overfishing would give these comprehensive plans teeth, a change that will, in turn, trigger new federal guidelines akin to what we have done to prevent conventional overfishing

Lastly, as a recreational industry member of the Mid Atlantic Council, I would like to see statutory language that requires a periodic—every five years or so—look at the allocation between sectors to provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation, as the Regional Councils are generally uncomfortable addressing such unpopular questions on their own.

Congress is currently embarking on the arduous process of reauthorization.  In fact, most this blog is taken directly from testimony I recently gave to the Senate Committee that deals with this stuff.  You can find the archived testimony here.  Note that my testimony begins at 1:29.

There will most certainly be efforts by some to weaken the law that has been so critical to rebuilding stocks like summer flounder.   Particularly by South Atlantic and Gulf states upset by the red snapper situation.  Granted I’m no expert on what’s going on down there, but given what I’ve read on the subject, the complaints sound an awful lot like the gripes we were hearing on summer flounder five or six years ago before we rebuilt.  Unfortunately, it will take a lot longer to rebuild red snapper given they live a lot longer and grow slower.

Last year NOAA Fisheries announced that the end of overfishing is in sight, with annual catch limits, mandated by the 2006 reauthorization, now in place in all federally-managed fisheries.  In a marine environment where overfishing has long been the rule, reaching a point where it is the exception is indeed a milestone.

As a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council I can tell you that implementation of the 2006 Magnusson Stevens Act Reauthorization has not easy, but it is important that we stay the course.  The Magnuson Stevens Act is working, and this is important for my business, my community, and my family.  The Mid-Atlantic has turned the corner and ended overfishing, and we have rebuilt depleted fish populations like summer flounder, black seabass and scup.  Now is not the time to retreat from the hard work we’ve done and the progress we are seeing on the water.

As we move into the period where Congress considers reauthorization, we’ll really need support from anglers to stay the course.  Despite some regional problems, which are currently being addressed on the regional level, we should not weaken the Magnusson Stevens Act’s conservation provisions just as they stand on the threshold of success, for those measures are responsible for the turnaround in the Mid-Atlantic and around the country, and the last thing we want to do is to go back to the failed policies of the past.  Yet, that’s exactly where some in the commercial and recreational fishing communities want to take us.

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Conservation, Summer Flounder

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