Fish Focus: Sea Bass in the Death Spiral

A close friend of mine recently helped the production crew of a popular reality show frame up a sequence of shots for a brief segment on the seafood industry in Point Judith, RI. He called late that afternoon to report in on the experience. After running me through the particulars of his behind- the-scenes glimpse of television production, some of the fascinating logistical aspects of that job, he remarked that it’s getting mighty challenging to put a camera crew near a real, live professional fisherman without landing on the receiving end of a semi-furious diatribe from said fisherman about the incredible difficulty in plying that age-old trade under the severely restrictive current management regime and the new environmental media. If you didn’t know a few fishermen—hadn’t logged some hours on deck yourself—you could easily get the idea that modern fishermen are an angry, vindictive bunch who hate the fish and the ocean and their livelihood in general.

This is not, of course, the case, though I must admit it’s gotten incredibly tedious trying to carry out the otherwise relatively straightforward business of hauling fish from the briny. The brutal and too-often counterintuitive sum of regulations surely don’t help anyone’s mood—ditto the constant broadsides fishermen endure at the hands of well-intentioned but tragically misinformed environmental activists. But that’s not exactly the problem. The worst of it all is the feeling, after years trying to work one’s way through an endless thicket of conflicting statutes, loopholes and gray areas, that one is living in a continuous Catch-22. It’s the cruelest kind of irony that when the fishing is good and we should feel happy about that fact, we have become programmed by years of fishery management hearings to feel uneasy, sensing that fishing this good is sure to bring on great and terrible consequences a few months down the line. And when the fishing’s slow for more than a week or two, we worry that the fisheries bureaucrats will construe our failure to load up as evidence the stock we’re targeting is in some kind of biological or ecological peril—that we’ll pay for that, too, with constricted catch specs in the following year.

It has gotten to the point where those of us who take to Rhode Island and Block Island Sounds and the expanse of ocean south or east for our living ship out half the time praying for mediocrity—a far cry from the attitudes held by previous generations of fishermen.

During the 2012 season, for example, fishermen using every conceivable gear type from the intertidal zone out to the edge of the continental shelf, from the Gulf of Maine nearly to the Gulf of Mexico, encountered unprecedented numbers of the prized black sea bass. We often see big year classes of one species or another—a temporary abundance fueled by a year or two of strong spawning yields—but this was something different.

The superabundant sea bass represented the whole size spectrum, from swarms of 2- to 3-inch juveniles, to big stacks of foot-long fish to nice shots of true behemoths—big, thick, hump-headed specimens of 4 to over 7 pounds. At first, the sheer thrill of catching personal-best sea biscuits left foolish grins on our faces. As things progressed, and I discussed what we were seeing with diver friends and draggermen and lobstermen, I learned that these fish were covering up the bottom in all kinds of areas they’d never been spotted.

Months passed and the fleet continued catching big numbers and big fish and before long the feelings of dread started to take hold: Any other time a fishery has been this good for this long across such a wide area, we’ve blown our allotted quota out of the water by a margin of 50 or 70 percent, and in the next year we’ve faced regulatory cuts to the tune of 50 or 75 percent.

To make matters worse, a problem specific to black sea bass is a high degree of scientific uncertainty around catch data. Thanks to some enviro-spawned language included in the Magnuson-Stevens Act (the main piece of federal fishery management legislation) as it was reauthorized in 2007, regulators are now required to subtract the percentage of data uncertainty from the total annual catch targets. Without miring down further in the bureaucratic particulars, bottom line is that we started with insufficient quota, then lost the amount associated with the high uncertainty right off the top, then discovered the fish were so thick we couldn’t get away from them. What inevitably follows is a complete shut-down of the fishery when the fleet has overshot the mark by a staggering margin; then, months later, on the threshold of the next season, we face draconian cuts and wind up with a minuscule allotment against which to fish. In the (ironically) worst-case scenario, a continued strong showing of the stock means we blow the greatly diminished allocation out of the water in the next year by an even more mind- boggling margin. And so the regulatory death-spiral grinds to life.

Go through this predictable cycle enough times in a career, and it’ll twist your love and hope for a fish into a cycle of fear and indignation. In the end, it leaves you with a sense that what the entire regulatory process needs—more than the “accountability measures” or robust scientific data the non- fishing contingency’s always demanding on Capitol Hill—is some loophole or legislative slot into which we might plug some of the good, old-fashioned common sense that isn’t near as common as it once was around the bulkheads.