By Gary Caputi

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association - July 1996 Newspaper)

I’d like to thank Congressman Saxton and the members of this committee for their interest in investigating the manner in which statistics have been collected and used to manage the bluefin tuna resource. Since I was asked to testify with only a few days notice, I reserve the right to amend my testimony with additional materials to be provided with my final written statements.

I’m here today representing the Jersey Coast Anglers Association and its 76 associated clubs. The JCAA has been formally commenting on the management of bluefin tuna for a dozen years, during which time we have seen the biomass reduced to a fraction of its former levels, and its nature changed from a recreational fishery to one that is overwhelmingly commercialized. We have seen statistics used to support excessive commercial quotas and to devalue the recreational component.

When compiling bluefin statistics, managers conveniently overlook the period from the late 1800s through the early 1960s when bluefin were primarily harvested recreationally. The Beach Haven Marlin and Tuna Club, which keeps records back to the turn of the century, verifies that school and medium bluefin were valued by anglers, caught from chartered sailboats just a few miles off the beach, attracting tourism dollars and providing the impetus for a large and robust charter fleet to grow. This was mirrored in shore communities along the school bluefin’s migratory path from Rhode Island to Virginia. Today, there is only one full time charterboat left in Beach Haven, the rest gone the way of the resource. Yet, managers and statisticians ignore this historic fishery and deny its future through the unbalanced use of selected statistical data that miraculously doesn’t start until 1970. Using the years 1970 forward might seem an arbitrary statistical decision, but by starting there, numbers can be slanted to downplay recreational participation and make the population decline caused by commercial overharvest look less serious. You see, by 1970 the school bluefin fishery was already decimated from a decade of wanton purse seining to supply cannery production lines.

Before we discuss the present methodology, let’s see how the statistical history of this fishery has been manipulated by the commercial fishing industry. When the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (predecessor of NMFS) first encouraged tuna clippers to come to the western Atlantic to purse seine immature bluefin, there was no recognizable commercial fishery. Bluefin populations were healthy, even after decades of recreational harvest, and represented a valuable component of coastal economies. The purse seiners arrived in the late 1950s, and by 1970 were well on their way to depleting the school fishery. They harvested millions of immature fish and as late as 1970, with stocks at all-time lows, they still harvested 318,000 one-, two- and three-year old bluefins.

Twenty six years later, the recreational school bluefin quota determined in pounds for 1996 will represent less than 9,000 fish for angling category permit holders, yet lobbyists for the purse seiners are up in arms. Recreational fishermen are called "baby killers" for harvesting less than three percent of the amount of fish their boats harvested in 1970, at a time when the school fishery was already in serious trouble. Does an adage about a pot and a kettle come to mind? The problems that exist today are the direct result of the games that have been played with statistics to benefit commercial users and deny the recreational component.

At a 1991 ICCAT meeting, a poorly prepared U.S. ICCAT commissioner, armed with inaccurate recreational data, bartered away the recreational school bluefin fishery. Instead of agreeing to 15 percent of the total western Atlantic’s school fish quota to maintain the recreational industry, they negotiated down to only 8 percent of just the

U. S. quota. This was an allocation decision made using inaccurate data compounded by an attitude that the recreational fishery was unimportant compared to the commercial fishery. Giant tuna were bringing incredible prices at the Tokyo fish market and that was "commerce" in the eyes of the negotiator. The recreational fishery, which probably exceeded the economic output of the commercial fishery, was denied because its harvest and economic output were not quantified. It was, and remains, an invisible industry, easily ignored in the light of international trade and well-heeled commercial lobbying efforts.

The inequities continue today through the use of flawed methodology for surveying recreational harvest that simply isn’t accurate. In 1994, using the old system, NMFS indicated that the recreational quota was underfished by a significant margin. Under pressure to reallocate the underage to commercial user groups, NMFS changed the multiplier being used and failed to stratify the data. With this change, we went from two years of significant underage to a large "statistical" overage in both years. The recreational community was stunned by this latest move.

By changing the multiplier and considering every boat that had a permit as actively fishing for bluefin, they generated a false reading of the harvest. When permits were required, recreational fishermen were told that even if they didn’t fish for bluefin, they should get a permit to show their concern for the importance of the fishery. I can attest to the typical angling category permit holder because I believe I am one. In the four years I’ve held a bluefin tuna permit for my 23-foot boat, I’ve harvested two bluefin tuna. I rarely fish for them, yet have a permit to show my concern for the preservation of the fishery. I know of other permit holders who have never fished for bluefin, yet today NMFS counts us all as harvesting a significant number of fish each season that we simply do not catch.

If the giant tuna harvest was estimated using the same survey method, it would be shut down in a tenth of the time it has run in recent years. NMFS knows that only a tiny fraction of the 11,129 general category permit holders actually catch a giant each year. In 1995, only 784 vessels or about seven percent of general category, charter and headboat vessels combined landed a giant. This is similar to the recreational component in that a great number of permit holders do not catch bluefin every year, but there are inequities built into the methodology that now overestimates the recreational harvest by an order of magnitude. While there are only 4,500 angling and 2,660 charter/headboat permits issued, NMFS uses an arbitrary multiplier of 12,000 active vessels to determine the school harvest for some unexplained reason.

ICCAT has declared western Altantic bluefin tuna a closed fishery. Harvest supposedly is allowed only for scientific monitoring purposes. It is impossible to get accurate scientific data if we do not monitor the stocks of immature fish. This is one of the benefits of the recreational component of the fishery and it must be maintained. To obtain accurate statistical data on stock health, a third of the harvest should be school fish, a third mediums and a third giants. If the recreational component was allowed to harvest 15 percent of the western Atlantic quota in school fish, there would be adequate statistical data to accurately gauge the stocks and a viable recreational fishery could be maintained.

The current methodology used to estimate recreational harvest is seriously flawed, provides exaggerated catch statistics and must be changed to accurately portray the actual catch. If it is not, the recreational component of the fishery will be regulated out of existence and the overall scientific data gathered for monitoring purposes will not accurately represent the true state of the fishery. Thank you.

Gary Caputi is Vice President of the JCAA and holds a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Council.

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