Fish Focus: Anger Management

For the last bunch of years, I’ve scratched out a ridiculous number of published words on the subject of fisheries management. The last two or three seasons, much of that output has related to what many fishermen and I have seen as the increasingly bleak state of our striped bass resource—a position that has remained up for active debate until quite recently. This season, though, something has changed; even the last holdouts have begun to concede that we are headed for dark days in our striper fisheries.

To continue hollering that bass are in trouble now would be preaching to the converted. There’s important work to be done, but it’s about to get a whole lot more complicated.

Back in my former life as editor of The Fisherman’s New England Edition, I struggled to understand long-time Senior Editor (and my predecessor) Tim Coleman’s apparent hatred for those who had failed, 30 years and counting, to enact any effective regulatory measures to protect our beleaguered codfish. Twenty-four when I arrived, I was full of big ideas and a conviction that my fellow young guys and I might get things turned around if we could put some new faces on the councils and put some honest effort into getting it right.

But as my own tenure wore on— as I watched management fiasco after management fiasco erode what little faith remained among those who’d paid attention and tried to work the process from the inside. Nine years later, in 2011, I saw all too clearly how Coleman—we’d become friends by then—had wound up so thoroughly disgusted with council appointees whose chief management priorities involved safeguarding their own financial stakes in various fisheries under their regulatory jurisdiction.

Over years, I’d watched some unsavory back room political wrangling between state delegates to the ASMFC, had witnessed a couple of scandalous examples of bad regulatory science in action, and seen more than a couple fisheries managers vote butter onto their own bread. It was a surprise codfish rebound that materialized around 2007 on long-forgotten winter grounds east and south of Block Island, and ended with the wholesale annihilation of that spawning aggregation in the winter of 2011-2012, that gave me a clear picture of a management regime that had failed. That fishery fell under the jurisdiction of federal-waters regulators on the New England Council (NEFMC)—a management body with some serious skeletons in its conservation closet. The striper situation, by contrast, is a state-waters problem, under the concurrent jurisdiction of state-level councils and the over-arching federal oversight thereof through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The challenges, as we attempt to turn stripers around, will be about the same as they’ve been with cod—chief among them trying to get timely management action out of a bureaucracy paralyzed by statute.

As I’ve continued to study the fishery management process, I’ve seen how burdensome the tangle of interlocking federal and state statute becomes—and learned that there’s a direct proportional relationship between the scope of a proposed regulation and the number of statutory hoops managers must clear to write it into law.

The fastest regulatory actions— emergency actions—require much less advance bureaucratic scrambling, but also have relatively brief legal shelf-life, partly to prevent slipshod work by regulators tackling a complex problem: You don’t want to address a complicated and chronic problem with a Band-Aid. On the other end of the regulatory spectrum, a permanent change with significant management implications—an amendment to a fishery management plan, for example—requires a whole laundry list of environmental and economic impact studies, among other due-diligence prep work. The extent of preparatory spade work and legal analysis naturally prolongs the timeframe for implementation by months or years.

It’s this latter knowledge—the reality that the whole process pokes along at a glacial rate when the issue at hand involves so many different user groups—that has kept me from teeing off too violently on striped bass managers for their non-action to date. Often, when an issue involves the state-waters level of regulation (and thus the ASMFC), managers will defer to the states to enact their own measures rather than trying to shoehorn the whole East Coast into one regulatory action from the federal level.

In the case of this summer’s massacre of big breeder striped bass at Block Island, the part that’s so hard to reconcile is the apparent certainty that fishermen will exploit the resource at the highest possible level so long as the fish can be removed from the briny.

The ugly reality is that a very high market price for bass on the Mass commercial market has put a serious bounty on the fish anywhere they swim: When a market is open anywhere, it inevitably serves as a loophole for illegal commercial practices (like landing RI fish in MA) as well as running interference for the black market. What makes this year so tricky is the relative dearth of saleable fish in Mass waters, the diminished possession limit, and the huge quota allocation granted to that state: Not only will a slow, steady trickle of fish keep the price off the charts, but it won’t likely fill the quota anytime in the foreseeable future. Thus, as long as there are big fish to catch anywhere in the Northeast, there will be a heavy economic incentive to abduct them.

Much as I wish it was in the range of normal human behavior to self-regulate, the only effective means to keep fishermen from destroying their own future in the name of short bucks will be drastic restriction across the board. It’s simple: Either everybody’s in or everybody’s out. If one guy is fishing for the market, everyone’s fishing for the market—or catching his share before the next guy ships it to Mass for $4.50 a pound.

As for enforcement, the states simply do not have the revenues or the manpower to tackle a black-market free-for-all on the scale of Block Island this summer. To its credit, at least Massachusetts has made a visible effort to keep its own fishermen in line—mainly through select “shock-and-awe” efforts like a big show of force along the three-mile line off Chatham back in July, which confiscated a handful of boats and trailers from guys fishing for the market outside three miles in the EEZ. By comparison, RI made no real effort to make its presence known at Block Island, despite a veritable circus of fish piracy there.

But that’s history now, and we’re back to the million-dollar question: How to save striper stocks before it’s too late? For what it’s worth, because striped bass is certainly not the only stock in crying need of something like real-time regulation, it’s time to start taking a hard look at the current statutory wording that requires the use of hard data in all management actions. At a point when fishery scientists have near-zero research budgets, attaching more and more legal gravity to data is a quick way to grind the whole system to an ill-timed halt. And the call for more data is just one small facet of a larger set of challenges.

Years of political wrangling, environmentalist litigation, and bureaucratic sprawl have deprived regulators of any agility they sorely need to function effectively.

Best shot we really have at this stage is to pressure our state ASMFC delegations to propose new catch restrictions—increased minimum size and one-fish bag limit for state recreational vessels might be a good starting point. As for the commercial allocation, in light of rampant black-market abuses in all the states that have commercial seasons, this is probably the time to put a temporary moratorium on the sale of bass—until we can put adequate accountability measures place to curb massive abuses of the commercial fisheries.

Unfortunately, we’re all going to deal with some pain at this point, but if that’s what it takes to shore up the future of our most important stock, better to start now than to wait until we squander the possibility of a second rebound.

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