Fisheries Management
& Legislative Report

by Tom Fote
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association July 2020 Newsletter)

Contents:

Regulations just for the sake of Regulations

When I say this I mean that we are now putting in regulations that cut back quotas and access for commercial fishermen and anglers for no valid reason. Sometimes I feel like a history professor, constantly reminding people about the reasons for the plans and how fisheries were managed using common sense. Below are articles that deal with what we did in the 90’s for bluefish and scup. Commissioners and Council members were allowed to act as fisheries managers and not just as the “fall guys” for the National Marine Fisheries Service. There were two major events that had an impact on how we manage fisheries today. In the late 90’s the National Marine Fisheries Service was constantly sued by NGOs with huge budgets to support their suits. In addition, since NMFS did not appeal some of the decisions when they lost, NMFS was also paying for the lawsuits. The NGOs and their lawyers became the “ambulance chasers” of the fisheries. They won their battles on technicalities and not on management decisions. Were some lawsuits justified? I would have to say yes. But there were others that were just money-making opportunities for the organizations and their attorneys. The other major event in 2006 was the passage of the Magnusson Stevens Act which was implemented in 2007. That took away fisheries management from the Councils and gave it to number crunchers. Yes, there were mistakes made in the 70’s and 80’s and we needed a set of standards to hold managers accountable. The Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council was doing things other Councils were not, implementing ACLs that put quotas in place to deal with targets and actually accomplish something. Other Councils were not doing this. But the National Marine Fisheries Service, through their interpretation of the Magnusson Stevens Act and to avoid lawsuits, put too much emphasis on models and charts and deleted the common sense. Below I will talk about two examples, bluefish and scup. I am also putting in articles that appeared in the JCAA Newspaper in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

Bluefish

The week of June 16 I attended the Joint Meeting of ASMFC and the MAFMC via Zoom. I noticed the sparse attendance of the recreational fishing sectors, both party and charter boats and anglers. The meetings are usually held when it is very difficult for the party and charter boat owners to attend because this is their busy season. The recreational anglers are finally able to fish and they have also lost all confidence that the system will listen to them. I listened to an extended presentation of how we are overfished for bluefish because of the new recreational fishing numbers. There were many charts and tables to show us how we could stop overfishing from three to ten years with the recommended changes in the recreational and commercial catches. I asked the same question I have asked before, “Since bluefish have good recruitment and is not depending on spawning stock biomass to increase the number of fish, can you really predict what will happen if we implement these changes?” I pointed out the history which is covered in the articles below. The bluefish fishery is dependent on the availability of forage species which are dependent on a range of environmental factors. How many bluefish we catch has no actual impact on the size of the bluefish biomass. The presenters actually agreed that there was no certainty that anything they suggested will have an impact on the stocks. Many Council and Commission members actually chimed in with the same concerns. We are putting regulations on bluefish so NMFS can say they are doing something to rebuild the stocks and stop overfishing, not because they actually believe this will be accomplished. Like weakfish and winter flounder, the bluefish stocks are more dependent on cyclical and environmental factors and the availability of a food source.

Scup

The historical record on scup was a 30/70 split, recreational/commercial. The articles below demonstrate how we went from a 30% to a 22% quota on scup in the recreational sector. The Council and Commission basically took 8% of the recreational quota over a period of two meetings and gave it to the commercial sector to get them to do something about by catch. The recreational community in 1995 did not believe there would ever be regulations on the scup catch and some of the recreational members of the Council actually supported the 8% giveaway. NMFS again is trying to force us to cut back our catch without having any impact on the stocks. The scup stocks are in good shape and the commercial community is not even catching their quota. The small part the recreational community plays will have no impact on the stocks but the impact on the recreational community will be huge.

Bluefish and Scup Articles from Past Newsletters
Bluefish Outrage!!! 3 Bluefish a day Allowed in 1996?
by Tom Fote (reprinted from JCAA Newsletter August 1995)

On July 28, 1995, there was a meeting of the Bluefish Monitoring Committee in Essington, PA. There’s nothing unique about that, except that from July 25 through 27, there was a meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held at the Double Tree Hotel in downtown Philadelphia, a 15 minute drive from Essington. The Commission meeting was attended by many of the members of the Bluefish Monitoring Committee and other commissioners who expressed an interest in the Monitoring Committee’s findings that were to be presented on the 28th.

The poorly scheduled Monitoring Committee meeting ended up not being attended by many participants who should have been there, even though it was only 10 miles away. That was because it added another day’s travel expenses for many commission members and would have kept them from their jobs in their home states for a fifth consecutive day, since the Commission meetings began early on Tuesday morning requiring most members to fly in on Monday. For that reason, the Bluefish Monitoring Committee, which was holding an extremely important meeting, was attended by only a handful of people and only four voting members. The ironic part of this scenario was the full committee meeting in Philly was over at noon on the 27th and the Bluefish Monitoring Committee meeting could have been held on that afternoon in the same hotel where most of the committee members were already staying. The meeting room had already been paid for by the government for the remainder of the day.

It would have saved time, expense money, the cost of an additional meeting room and lodging at a totally different hotel, in addition to making it possible for the greatest number of commissioners and committee members to attend. Instead, the meeting was a wasteful expenditure of scarce tax dollars that prevented participation by many of the people who wanted to attend.

Added to the scheduling nightmare was the Bluefish Board’s meeting, held the following Tuesday in conjunction with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in Wilmington, Delaware. This meeting, where some very important decisions were made, was only three days after the Monitoring Committee Meeting, which meant that the public received no notice of the findings of the Monitoring Committee prior to the Board pushing these issues to a premature, yet final vote. In fact, I don’t know of one Governor’s or Legislative Appointee from any of the member states that was notified of the findings of the Monitoring Committee or were notified that the Bluefish Board was even meeting. Only voting members of the Bluefish Board received notice. Keep in mind that the Governor’s and Legislative Appointees presently make up 2/3s of the ASMFC. Even worse, the public, including representatives of the recreational and commercial fishing industries, were denied the opportunity to comment on these critically important regulatory decisions because they did not know the meeting was being held.

The ASMFC, the Councils and NMFS better get their act together. These three entities are supposed to be working in a spirit of cooperation in the best interests of the marine fisheries of the United States. The more the Councils and the Commission send mixed messages to the fishermen they are attempting to regulate, the weaker the trust in the data and the system becomes. And if anyone thinks that these fishermen don’t know just how weak the enforcement capabilities behind these regulations are, they better stop kidding themselves. We depend heavily on voluntary compliance to the regulations we impose and when the fishing public says "to hell with you and your rules," our ability to regulate fisheries will evaporate.

As a Commissioner from New Jersey, I am already kept busy trying to explain to fishermen why they are allowed to keep eight fluke when caught in state waters, but only six when caught in Federal waters. That imaginary line found three miles off our beaches is becoming very blurred by this confusion. Now I have to try and explain the discrepancy between the Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC in the regulation of bluefish. The Bluefish Board pushed through a three fish bag limit in state waters, while the Council, after listening to the very same monitoring committee report and the same rhetoric from a small group of state directors or there designates, realized several important things. They understood that there had not been a reasonable level of public notice and public comment and that Amendment 1 was the way to answer the problems in this fishery. They voted to make no changes in the present management regime in the EEZ. That’s right, they kept the bag limit at ten fish in Federal waters.

The ASMFC, under the new Atlantic States Conservation Act, is supposed to keep the management process open to public input and participation at all levels of plan development and implementation. It looks great on paper, but apparently, that is not the way it is being played out by the Commission. If the ASMFC cared even a little bit about the impact its decision to reduce the recreational bag limit by 70% would have on fishermen and members of the sport fishing industry, they would have encouraged the full participation of the Bluefish Advisory Panel. That Panel was already assembled and in place for just that reason, but again, that was not the case. By coincidence, the chairman of the Bluefish Advisory Panel, Bob Rhodes, was in attendance because he had just been appointed to a seat on the Council. He was amazed at what the Bluefish Board was doing. He didn’t even know such a vote was in the offing and commented on the record after the vote was taken, that it was inappropriate without conferring with the Advisory Panel and without adequate public input into the process. It was certainly not in compliance with the tenants of the Atlantic Coast Conservation Act.

After counting the number of votes that decided the 70% reduction in the bag limit, it became obvious that not only wasn’t the public involved in the process, but neither were the voting members of the ASMFC Bluefish Management Board. The vote count reported to me showed that only seven vote were cast in favor of the reduction. The Bluefish Management Board consists of 19 members. That means that 12 members either abstained from voting, voted no, or simply were not present due to scheduling conflicts. It was not like this vote was an emergency matter, since the reduction was not to go into effect until 1996 and Amendment 1 is supposedly on a "fast track." Public input could have been garnered and a vote on these changes could have been taken at a later ASMFC meeting.

In my opinion, the ASMFC really stubbed its toe badly on this vote. Most of the anglers on the East Coast were unhappy with decisions made by the Commission, even when those decisions were made with a high level of public participation. Witness the resentment and distrust generated when the Commission unilaterally decided to increase the commercial harvest of striped bass from 20% TO 70% in the final version of Amendment 5, against overwhelming advice from the public and its own Striped Bass Advisory Panel. Can you imagine how they are going to feel when they see that the ASMFC is now making decisions that will negatively impact the major contingent of the fishing public and industry with total disregard for public input altogether. What the ASMFC must do immediately is call for a meeting of the Bluefish Advisory Panel to allow them to review the decisions made by the Board. It should promptly hold public hearings in those states that will be dramatically impacted by this 70% reduction in the bag limit, because to not do so would be extremely detrimental to the entire management process.

With regard to the Bluefish Management Plan, a plan that has been recognized as being flawed from its inception and that some have called, "the worst management plan ever devised," there should be no major changes in the present management regime under framework procedures like this bag limit reduction, and the entire plan should be reviewed and corrected in the Amendment 1 process. Let me point out just one of the really glaring inequities in this plan. The commercial quota is based on the "total recreational catch." Most uninformed fishermen would assume that "total recreational catch" means all the sport caught fish retained. That is not what it means at all. In this plan, "total recreational catch" represents all those fish caught, included the hundreds of thousands of fish that are released alive by sport fishermen. Let’s look a little closer at this way the commercial harvest is determined using plain numbers.

For sake of argument, let’s say that the total recreational catch was 500,000-lbs., but because of bag limits, size limits and those fish released voluntarily by anglers because of their ingrained conservation ethic, they only kept 100,000-lbs. of those fish and the rest were release alive. When this plan calculates the commercial quota, it is based on 20% of the 500,000-lbs. of bluefish recreational anglers caught, including released fish, and not on just the fish they harvested. Not surprisingly, 20% of 500,000-lbs. is 100,000-lbs., or the same number of fish that sport fishermen killed. Through the use of fancy accounting methods, the commercial sector is harvesting far in excess of 20% of even the "total recreational catch," but they are not held accountable for any discards in the commercial fishery because commercial discard was never even considered in this plan. We all know that commercial discards and bluefish bycatch in other fisheries is excessive, yet there is no effort to account for this large quantity of dead bluefish on the commercial side of the equation. Some feel it is far in excess of even the most liberal estimates.

Ladies and gentlemen, Please let the ASMFC know in no uncertain terms how you feel about this or you will have a three bluefish bag limit imposed on your fishing or your sport fishing dependent business as sure as the sun rises. Incredibly, less than one week after this controversial vote, the ASMFC upped and moved its offices and changed its phone numbers. But don’t despair, I will give you the new address and phone number so the staff and commissioners cannot hide from the public any longer. Please write or call ASMFC.

Bluefish (1997)
by Tom Fote (reprinted from JCAA Newsletter April 1997)

At the Mid-Atlantic Council meeting in February, the Council approved draft Amendment 1 to the Bluefish FMP. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will be voting on Amendment 1 on March 19th. There are questions that have not been answered in the Bluefish Fisheries Management Plan that must be considered before this plan can be approved. First, what are the normal stock levels? Second, how much spawning stock biomass needs protection so that if conditions are right the population will increase? And third, what is the spawning stock biomass below which we would severely inhibit reproductive potential and a stock recovery?

In order to answer any of these questions we must think about what has happened. The number of bluefish available in the 70's and 80's were the highest that anyone ever remembers. Their range expanded dramatically further to both the north and south.

Unfortunately, the stock information being provided to the Council and Commission for review purposes only goes back to 1981, a time when the stock levels were at their highest. Consequently, the stock assessment today appears drastically low, by comparison.

The available stocks of bluefish decreased in the late 80's. This downward trend has continued into the 90's. Unlike other species, there was no dramatic increase in either the commercial or recreational fisheries. Actually, there were no bag limits in the 70's or 80's, as bag limits were first imposed in 1990 with no effect on slowing the stock decrease. Bluefish is not a species that takes a long time to become sexually mature. Not one scientist can point with any certainty to the reason why the stocks have decreased. When you look at the charts and at the fifty year average, the 1990 catches are still above the fifty year average. Before we implement the draconian measures that have been proposed for 1998, we must answer these questions. It is not fair to the recreational community and the industry to impose measures that will have a drastic effect on the industry without actually meeting its goals of conserving the stocks. The question I continually ask is, if we stopped all bluefishing tomorrow for three years, could you tell me if that would have a significant impact in increasing bluefish stocks to the historic high levels of the 80s. Not one scientist has been willing to answer that question on the record. Most of us started our saltwater fishing on snappers.

One of the management tools that is likely to be implemented is a 12 inch size limit for both recreational and commercial fishermen. This could be a big mistake economically for the future of recreational fishing and the industry. My father first introduced me to fishing by taking me down to Sheepshead Bay to fish for snapper blues. We never wasted any, bringing ever fish we caught and kept was brought home to eat. That is how I have introduced my nieces and nephews to saltwater fishing, taking them down to a dock on Barnegat Bay to fish for snappers. If I must stop teaching children to fish on snappers, at least guarantee me that the sacrifice will have a truly beneficial impact on overall stocks. Unfortunately, as it appears right now, it looks more like a 12 inch size limit is going to be imposed just so managers can look like they are doing something, not because it is the correct scientifically determined thing to do. Right now, the fisheries management community is unable to provide any encouragement that a size limit is the answer. In fact, they are still struggling with the simple question, why are bluefish stocks declining in our waters. I have a sneaky suspicion that the main reason bluefish stocks are down in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states is due to the overharvest of critical forage species like menhaden, herring, mackerel, squid and other species. To correct that problem would require some serious fisheries management and NMFS, the Council and Commission are very hesitant to open that can of worms.

ASMFC 54th Annual Meeting Summary
by Tom Fote (reprinted from JCAA Newsletter November 1995)

Scup

The Scup Management Plan proves again that the recreational community takes it on the chin when it comes to the management process. The Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC went to public hearings with a document that stated that the quota on scup will be 70% commercial and 30% recreational based on landings. When the council and commission considered the bycatch issue, suddenly the quota was changed from a 70/30 split on landings, we got a 72/28 split on catch. It again proved the council and commission will not deal seriously with the bycatch issue and will continue to reward the people who cause the problem. This fishery was truly a subsistence fishery, providing a dietary supplement for low income families. Now we have taken that away from them by not addressing the bycatch issue. These people fish from dock, piers and the shore. Unless we insure the abundance of this resource and not lose it through bycatch, they lose this harvest.

ASMFC Week, March 11-14, 1996
by Tom Fote (reprinted from JCAA Newsletter May 1996)

Scup FMP

The Scup Plan was passed by the ASMFC, again with the New Jersey delegation voting against it at the Policy Board and full commission. The reason was that the 22/78 split in quota allocation between recreational and commercial users was never presented as an option during any public hearing documents or brought before the advisors. It was an arbitrary figure arrived at during a Mid-Atlantic Council meeting with no input from the public.

When will the Commission and Council recognize that they cannot make major policy decisions like reducing the recreational portion of the quota from 30% to 22%, which reduces the recreational catch by almost a third, without care for public opinion or the impact it will have on recreational fishermen and the industry. This is not representative fisheries management as is circumvents the public hearing process and the advisors that we are supposed to rely on for industry input and to keep the process representative.

Bluefish Update: Bag Limits to Remain at 10 Fish for 1998
by Gary Caputi (reprinted from JCAA Newsletter September 1997)

The combined Bluefish Board of the ASMFC and Coastal Migratory Committee from the Mid-Atlantic Council gathered in Philadelphia last week to determine the annual specifications for bluefish commercial quotas and recreational bag limits for 1998 and to further discuss Amendment 1 to the Bluefish Management Plan.

The 1998 specifications were determined under the original plan and had nothing to do with what was being considered for the upcoming plan amendment. I attended the Monitoring Committee meeting, which was held on Monday, August 11 and was pleased to see the committee and audience members seriously questioning the stock assessment results. While the assessment would lead one to believe bluefish were in a seriously depleted state and in need of major fishing mortality reductions, the vast amount of anecdotal data presented indicating the opposite was taken very seriously. The Monitoring Committee came to the conclusion that absent of any new management tools, they would fly in the face of the scientific data and recommend bag limits and commercial quotas stay status quo in 1998.

The ASMFC Bluefish Board and the Council met in joint session the next day and over a two hour period, going back and forth with the Regional Administrator, approved the Monitoring Committee’s recommendations. The status quo vote was overwhelming, but not unanimous. The manner in which the final proposal was worded prevents NMFS and the RA from denying the proposal, so the bag limit remains at 10 fish for another year.

Next came continuing discussions on Amendment 1 to the plan. The problem with this amendment is not so much expanding the management options to include possible seasonal closures and size limits, as it is the manner in which the stock is being assessed and what it could drive the management process to do in future years. The stock assessments are horribly inaccurate. Stock assessment scientists readily agree that they do not properly assess the stock’s health when the fish are ranging further offshore, as has been common in recent years. The scientists conceded that the MRFSS survey, which gauges recreational landings and harvest, is dominated by recreational trips that take place inside three miles of shore, while bluefish can range to over 100 miles offshore. Once bluefish move beyond 10 miles out, recreational trips targeting them plummet. They also recognize that recreational effort associated with bluefish has dropped dramatically in recent years, indicating a further "decline" in supposed bluefish stock size. The bottom trawl survey conducted by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center is a poor way to judge stock size for bluefish, and this is also conceded to. But the bottom line is these stock assessment tools are being used to drive the management system and until the science is corrected to adequately gauge bluefish stock size, it could force the system to take draconian measures to improve a stock that very well might not need any help, while hurting the recreational and commercial users who depend upon it.

Now, add to all this the base years being used to establish stock size includes the early and mid 1980s, when bluefish stocks were at all time historic size. We recognize that stocks have declined from those years, but with such a short time frame being used for comparison purposes in the plan, 1979 through the present, the decline seems far greater than it probably is when compared to historic stock sizes over the past 50 or 100 years. Which brings us to the question of just how large a stock are we aiming for in the plan? What constitutes a healthy bluefish biomass? These questions have not been answered, so we are left to wander around in the darkness of indecision and the current amendment provides very few answers in its present form. The future of the bluefish amendment is still at question and the variables driving management, especially the stock assessment component, is very much a Catch 22 scenario. We’ll keep you posted on developments.

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