By Dusty Rhodes

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association June 1999 Newsletter)

If memory serves, in the novel, Animal Farm, a porker squealed: "Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others." And that's precisely what worries critics of a fishery management concept called "conservation equivalency." On the flip side, however, supporters counter that management flexibility is a goal worth pursuing whatever the downside risks. To help you better understand equivalency, its strengths and weaknesses, we offer the following analysis.

Simply stated, conservation equivalency, as it relates to fishery management, is a provision which allows individual states to customize management measures to achieve certain objectives---a reduction in landings by a defined percentage, for example---instead of implementing coastwide measures intended to achieve the same ends. The most recent example occurred in the summer flounder fishery in December 1998.

As it does each year, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) selected coastwide management measures for the 1999 recreational fishing season. However, in a radical departure from custom, the two management bodies, which share joint responsibility for summer flounder, also included a provision for state equivalencies. The mandate was to ensure 1999 recreational landings were 40 percent lower than the previous year. On a coastwide basis, that would be attained by a combination of measures (a 15-inch minimum size, an eight-fish bag limit and an open season which would run from about mid-May to about mid-September).

Through equivalency, however, states were allowed to select alternatives as long as their recreational landings were reduced by at least 40 percent. The result has been considerably more variability in summer flounder measures. For example, after landing data for each state were analyzed, it was learned that some states could avoid a closed season altogether by opting for a 16-inch minimum size with an eight-fish bag limit (New York and New Jersey). Other states could significantly diminish a closure by selecting a 16-inch minimum (Virginia) while yet other states could achieve what was considered worthwhile reductions in the closed portion by choosing a compromise minimum size of 15-1/2 inches (New Jersey). In each instance, the permissible variables resulted from state peculiarities in recreational fishing; that is, fish distribution by size, how often and how many anglers attained the daily bag limit, weather, etc.

Although new to the summer flounder fishery, equivalency is neither unique nor untried. On the contrary, the ASMFC 's striped bass, blackfish and weakfish plans contain equivalency provisions in the sense that states are free to establish local control measures as long as certain species goals are met (harvest limits or reductions in harvest limits, for example). However, the summer flounder plan marked the first time a joint plan for the Council and ASMFC contained such flexibility. Yet uncertainty surrounded the move to equivalency because states were given the opportunity to choose either the coastwide measure or an equivalent, choices which do not exist in the aforementioned ASMFC plans.

That option is no minor feature. The way it works, any equivalent approach would have to pass muster with the ASMFC to ensure a 40 percent reduction would result. But no similar test is required when the coastwide measure is selected. And that's because when a coastwide measure is crafted, it's assumed defined goals would be met if all states implement it even though, generally, coastwide measures can't impact all states equally. Consequently, requiring a state to prove what the coastwide measure would yield was meaningless. And that, argued equivalency naysayers, would tempt states to select the less restrictive of the two approaches when differences were perceived to exist.

Yet that possibility isn't a fault of the equivalency concept. Rather, it's an artifact of allowing a choice between the coastwide measure and its state equivalent, an option which might not survive ongoing fine-tuning of the summer flounder plan. If the management bodies, especially the ASMFC, which has equivalency responsibility, refine this approach and eliminate coastwide options, the aforementioned objection would no longer be valid. Thus, it's probably a downside risk for only the 1999, "transitional" year.

Note also that what might be considered unfair about coastwide measures---their potential to impact states unequally----is unavoidable. And despite a potential for bias, coastwide measures have proven effective when equivalencies were either inappropriate or unnecessary. In the early days of the summer flounder plan when stocks were at seriously low levels, coastwide recreational measures were considered more effectively and more easily implemented than any other scenario. Moreover, since the recreational sector had been underfishing its harvest limit, coastwide measures could hardly be judged unfair. But with the dramatic increase in summer flounder availability and accompanying increases in recreational landings came the push for a new system. That new system would have to take greater cognizance of state fishing idiosyncrasies to ensure both effective and fair, that is, equitable, controls. Equivalency offers the promise of answering that requirement.

Free lunches are still hard to find, however. Going forward, the possibility of considerable differences among state measures, especially minimum size, will complicate determinations of fair and effective state equivalencies. And it's possible recreational fishermen from neighboring states will look enviously upon measures of adjoining states, thus prompting more public debate and dissatisfaction. The question of possible changes to harvest limit allocation also arises. With increased state measures might come a call for state-by-state harvest limits rather than a coastwide allocation, which is how the recreational sector has been managed so far. This is not to say which approach is best, but to point out the possibility of considerable debate over the issue.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to assume equivalency in one manner or another will remain a feature of the summer flounder plan. Indeed, the ASMFC has committed to fine-tuning summer flounder equivalency. But just what that means in the new decade, is as yet conjecture.

Yet we can be sure that the Chinese proverb, "May you live in interesting times," applies.


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