Are We Fisheries Managers or Rubber Stamps?

By Tom Fote
Commissioner to Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission
Phone 732-270-9102  Fax 732-506-6409

July 2002

        I have been reading a great deal about the proposed quota for summer flounder, scup and seabass and I find the tone of the discussion very disturbing.  The Stock Assessment Review Committee (SARC) of the National Marine Fishery Service met and reviewed the status of stocks for summer flounder.  According to a press release by Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, The most recent SARC advisory report indicates that the status of the summer flounder stock is overfished based on January 1, 2002 estimates of biomass. However, projections indicate that the stock biomass will exceed the biomass threshold during 2002 and at that time the stock will no longer be overfished. By January 1, 2003 the biomass level is projected to be about 10 million pounds above the current threshold of 117 million pounds. Spawning stock biomass has increased seven-fold since the low value estimated for 1989, and in 2001 it reached its highest level in the time series.

The press release further states, Based on the current assessment, the stock is nearly at the point where overfishing is no longer occurring. In fact, the fishing mortality is estimated to be only 0.01 greater than the threshold F of 0.26. This mortality level is the lowest mortality observed in the 20-year time series. The dramatic increase in stock biomass and significant decrease in fishing mortality rates indicates that the restrictive management measures put in place with the implementation of Amendment 2 regulations have worked to rebuild the stock, stated Dr. Chris Moore, Deputy Director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. 

Given the information above, reasonable people would expect at least a minor increase in the quota.  Instead, the SARC recommended a 1,000,000-pound reduction in quota.  The monitoring committee rubber-stamped the SARCs proposals.  The public and the bureaucrats assume that members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the MAFMC will once again roll over and not do our jobs.  I did not accept the volunteer job as Commission to the ASMFC to rubber-stamp the proposals that are presented to us.  These proposals are based on science that is questionable.  Everyone knows that the data is more art than science.  Everyone knows that the statistical errors are so large that there is considerable room for interpretation.  Due to recent judicial decisions and the collusion between the National Marine Fisheries Service and some environmental groups, the ASMFC and the MAFMC are expected to simply accept that our hands are tied.  They expect us to accept that we have no choice but to go along with proposals from the scientists who work for the National Marine Fisheries Service.  They are expecting us to base all our decisions on a model that has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.  They also expect us not to use our own extensive experience with fisheries management or the input we get from the fishing public.  They also expect us to put blind trust in scientists who have been consistently in error for the last 30 years. 

I served as the Governor's Appointee and Legislative Appointee Proxy to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for over 11 years and recently I was again appointed as the Governor's Appointee.  I am not about to roll over.  I was there when they started these management plans and am well aware of the faulty assumptions on which many of the plans rest.  I also saw the conservative assumptions that went into the models. I have also lived through the mistakes scientists have made in the models and have been part of the process that has tried to correct these mistakes.  I have not been appointed to be rubber-stamp for faulty science but to make informed decisions using all the available data.  We have seen a spawning stock biomass for summer flounder that has grown considerably since the original plans were put in place in 1994.  We have seen the benefits of the original plan by the tremendous stock growth before any judicial action was taken.  Just as the fishing community was about to reap the benefits of strict management and low quotas, we are being told that there are more fish than ever but we need to reduce our quota for next year.  Any fisherman, any angler, anyone who has been fishing or observed the summer flounder understands how absurd this quota proposal is.  Anyone with second grade math skills can figure this out.  But because of one judge and one bureaucrat from the National Marine Fisheries Service, what we know doesn't seem to count. 

If you sense frustration, you are correct.  This is small compared to the frustration of the people who depend on summer flounder for their livelihood.  In the current proposals the economic impacts is completely ignored.  The people who wrote the current proposals obviously missed the legal requirement to consider economic impact.  Or perhaps they considered economic impact but simply didn't care.  When a scientist makes an error in the data used to develop a plan, what penalty do they face?  Just an opportunity to say, "Oops!"  No one gets fired or even demoted.  Most of them get promoted or get a raise.  But when they use faulty data, people in the real world lose their jobs or suffer huge economic hardship.  Who apologizes to them and that makes it right?  I recently had a phone call from an angler who was completely frustrated.  I tried to discuss what I knew with him but his frustration got the better of him and all he could do was yell at me.  I understand his frustration and can sympathize with his total disgust about how the system operates.

There is a joint meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid Atlantic Marine Fisheries Management Council in Philadelphia on August 6th & 7th.  I understand this is the worst time for anglers to attend and that may be behind the scheduling.  However, everyone who has an interest in this issue really needs to be there.  I am willing to speak for all of you but I need your support.  I am not going to roll over on the recommendations of the monitoring committee.  I will use all the experience and the facts I have at my disposal to make an informed, comprehensive management decision and I call on the other members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid Atlantic Council to come to this meeting with the same commitment.  Dont let the National Marine Fisheries Service have the opportunity to ignore the recommendations of the Council and the Commission and act on faulty science without our help. 

Contact your governors, state directors, governor's appointees, legislative appointees and your council members and let them know that you expect to review all the information available and make their decision not on just on one piece of the pie.  This country is built on independence and now is the time for us to put that independence into action!