The benefits of rebuilding fisheries

In general, the status of federally managed stocks is getting better. So why isn’t anyone talking about that?

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

This week, NOAA Fisheries released two reports, Fisheries Economics of the United States 2012 and Status of U.S. Fisheries 2013. Just from perusing the reports it seems pretty clear that, as a result of the current rebuilding goals and firm rebuilding deadlines contained in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), along with the annual catch limits and accountability measures that became a requirement in the 2006 reauthorization, the status of our nation’s marine fish stocks continues to improve. In other words, nationwide, there are more fish around, and people, from both the recreational and commercial camps, appear to be making more money off of them.

In 2013 we once again increased the overall percentage of stocks not listed on the overfishing or overfished lists. Seven stocks were removed from the overfishing list, while four stocks were removed from the overfished list. In addition, two more stocks were declared rebuilt in 2013, bringing the total number of rebuilt stocks to 34 since 2000. Perhaps more important is the economic analysis. Commercial and recreational saltwater fishing generated more than $199 billion in sales in 2012, a gain of 7 percent over the previous year, with the economic impact of fishing jobs increasing 3 percent from 2011 to 2012.

It’s pretty clear that fisheries management under the MSA is steadily and effectively working to address overfishing and rebuild stocks. The difference in how things are now, as opposed to where they were 10 years ago, speaks volumes about the efficacy of the act’s conservation provisions.

But I don’t really need a report to tell me this, because it’s intuitive. You manage stocks conservatively, as we now are required to do under current federal fishery management law, and you get rebuilding and/or rebuilt stocks (aka more fish). And more fish equal more opportunity, whether it’s recreational or commercial. That generally translates to more money.

This isn’t just some exercise in numbers, this is real stuff. Such reports only tell part of the story. What they don’t tell us is what’s actually happening in the lives of real people who work as well as play on the water.

Right around this time last year, it was much warmer. After banging my head against the wall trying to put clients on stripers (which of course are declining because the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC) hasn’t exercised the kind of caution that MSA requires, precisely because it doesn’t have that mandate) I decided to take my twin 4 year-olds out to catch a few fluke (aka summer flounder). Five minutes from our house, in Oceanside, N.Y., maybe 30 seconds into our first drift, my son stuck a 28 inch fluke and landed it on one of those flimsy 4 foot kid’s setups (you know, the really cheap kind with 8 pound test that rarely makes it more than one or two trips before breaking). It was awesome! A trophy fish by any standard. I was freaking out, man. For the next hour or so (before the typical 4-year-old attention span runs out), both my daughter and son were catching keeper fluke left and right. And I was thinking, man, this is epic. My kids were stoked. I was stoked!

Yes, I’ve told that story before. But it’s important to tell it again and to keep telling it. Because this kind of thing is what a rebuilt fishery looks like. Running a light tackle charter business, I hardly ever bothered with fluke until a few years ago. That’s because to find a keeper fish, you generally had to go out to 40 or 60 feet of water in the ocean and fish with a 10 ounce sinker. And that’s just not that fun in my mind. Yet because we bit the bullet, made the hard decisions and adopted the hard caps on harvest that would get us to the rebuilding goal, we now have abundance and – more important – across the board opportunity. The stock has increased five-fold in the last 10 years and expanded its range. Its abundance makes it widely available to anglers fishing from shore and in the bays. No longer is it just for the fishermen who have big boats who can prosecute the ocean fishery or the commercial guys who drag nets. This is precisely what we mean when we say fisheries need to be managed for the “greatest benefit to the nation.”

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Summer flounder now makes up a substantial portion of my charter fishing income, as I now can bucktail them in 10 to 20 feet of water. We even catch them on flies. And that’s just cool, man, because such a fishery hasn’t existed since, well, since I’ve been around. And it is important to me financially, given that the striped bass schoolie summer fishery I used to prosecute with some success is pretty much non-existent now. If I don’t have the weather to run offshore in search of tuna, then I would pretty much have stayed tied to the dock in July and August, if it weren’t for the complete recovery of summer flounder. What’s unquestionably more important, though, is that I can take my family out with the reasonable expectation of catching a keeper fluke. That’s worth a hell of a lot more than any financial gain.

Without a doubt this sort of recovery/abundance has benefited more than just me. According to NOAA Fisheries, in the Mid-Atlantic, 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’ 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, by the mid 2000s that 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.

Summer flounder is an incredible success story. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the rebuilding requirements in the MSA. Having been there for at least part of the summer flounder rebuilding period, I can say with some confidence that we simply wouldn’t have rebuilt them to the abundant and widely distributed stock we have now if the council had not been forced to stick to its guns. Had we the flexibility to put off rebuilding, I am pretty certain we’d still be putting it off. Because, speaking from personal experience, it’s terribly hard to make those difficult decisions when stakeholders are telling you that you may be putting them out of business. A lot of that stuff ended up being hyperbole, but indeed it takes sacrifice (sometimes temporary, sometime permanent) to rebuild stocks and maintain them at abundant levels. Yes, there often are significant social and economic costs. Impacts are often unavoidable during rebuilding periods. But in the end, at least in the case of summer flounder, it seems like just about everyone won, although you certainly wouldn’t know it if you are a regular reader of the fishing press.

The summer flounder story is a remarkable one, and there are certainly others. But it seems like most of the talking heads would rather just bitch about how they can’t kill as many fish as they used to. And they continuously seem to harp on the kind of “flexibility” in rebuilding that would prevent such success stories like the summer flounder’s – and would pretty much allow people to perpetually fish stocks at low levels. I find this irritating, because the truth is that sticking to the rebuilding goals and timelines results in abundance and opportunity – the kind that is an absolute requirement for a successful recreational fishery.

I understand that not all fisheries responded to management measures designed to rebuild stocks in the “shortest time possible” – or in 10 years like summer flounder did. And I get that there are real problems down South, specifically with red snapper. I appreciate the frustration over the lack of access when it seems like there are more red snapper around than ever. I’m certainly no expert on those fisheries, but it sounds like a pretty tough situation. That said, I can’t help but notice the similarity to the gripes being made by the recreational fishing industry up here during the summer flounder recovery. Of course, I hope they can figure out a solution down there that doesn’t wreck the success we’ve had with our federally managed fisheries up here. Frankly, it doesn’t matter that much to me what they do with their fisheries, so long as it doesn’t ruin ours in the Mid-Atlantic. Which begs the question: Is it really worth destroying a law that appears to be working quite well for most anglers in most regions over a fishery that seems to be prosecuted by a pretty small portion of the recreational fishing community? Personally, I don’t think it is.

But getting back to the NOAA reports. They underscore the broad and positive economic impacts that come from rebuilding and rebuilt stocks. “These results demonstrate the strength of the U.S. science-based management model under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act,” said Eileen Sobeck, the new assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “The positive impacts we see in these two reports continue a long-term trend in improving the stock status and rebuilding in U.S. fisheries using sustainable management practices. The percent of assessed stocks that are not overfished or subject to overfishing continues to improve, with 91 percent of those stocks not subject to overfishing and 83 percent not overfished.”

It’s pretty darn clear that by ending overfishing and rebuilding stocks, we are strengthening the value of fisheries to the economy, communities and marine ecosystems. What it seems like at least the vocal part of the recreational community fails to realize is the backlash that going back to the “bad old days” of council “flexibility” would create. Why would we want to slide back to the days where councils had the leeway to put off rebuilding and where overfishing was the norm? That sort of thing might be fine for the commercial fleet, which are generally good at what it does. But it would suck for anglers who, as I’ve said many times, depend on the kind of abundance that current federal management perpetuates.

In the end, I hope that reason will prevail. If the new Senate discussion document is any indication, it looks like it may. I hope so for the sake of my charter fishing business but more for the sake of my kids.

In the meantime, it would be nice indeed if there were more enlightened folks out there who chose to talk about the success of current management measures rather than the usual complaining about how big government is keeping them from killing more fish. But I’m not holding my breath.


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.

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