Amendment 44 for Gulf Reef Fish

It is tough to keep your finger on the pulse of fisheries management.  The first hurdle is to understand the science, but you can’t stop there.  Once you wrap your head around how the fish are counted, you have to understand how the fish are managed.  One of the most common complaints in fishery management is in fact that the science is not adequate.  More often than not, that stems from a lack of understanding.   The science is relatively straight forward and tailored to the biology of any given species.  The management is a bit of a different story.

As an example, we can look at Amendment 44 for Gulf Reef Fish.  Amendment 44 is an approved action to revise the MSST (Minimum Stock Size Threshold) for seven species of reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico.  The species include gag, red grouper, red snapper, vermillion snapper, gray trigger, greater amberjack, and hogfish.   So what is MSST and why is it important?  MSST stands for “Minimum Stock Size Threshold”.  It is defined as “the spawning stock biomass level at which the maximum sustainable yield or proxy level can be taken on a continuing basis”.  MSST is a big factor in determining overfishing.  Overfishing is determined by the following formula. { (1-M) * Bmsy } M is the natural mortality and Bmsy is the stock biomass (egg production) level that allows the stock to produce MSY (maximum sustainable yield) on a continuous basis.  This ties the buffer to the natural fluctuations of fish populations.  If a fish lives a very long time, that has a natural mortality of 0.1, the MSST level would be set at 90% of the MSY level.  On the other hand, a short lived fish with a high natural mortality rate of .4, the formula allows for a much wide buffer between the MSST and MSY levels.  The lowest level of MSST allowed under the law is 50%.

There are two schools of thought.  Set MSST threshold as close as possible to MSY, that way you find out when a stock is overfished very quickly.  You are also bound by rebuilding standards because the stock will be officially overfished.  The other school of thought, set threshold well below MSY level.  This allows for more natural fluctuations.  However, most stocks will reach a situation where the number of the fish being removed actually exceeds the ability stock to create new fish.  This is called a recruitment collapse.  This is specifically why the law states that you can’t have an MSST under 50%.  If there is a wide buffer, the councils have time to rebuild the stock without adhering to strict timeframes mandated by being officially overfished.

You might ask yourself why anyone would want to set the MSST at a low level.  The risks are high that the stock will be overfished.  Furthermore, if the stock is declared overfished, it will really be overfished.  In the case of long lived fish, you would be looking at an extremely long rebuilding timeframe.

Amendment 44 had six different options for potential MSST revisions.  In the graph below, Alt 1 is status quo.  Green is a wider buffer for MSST than status quo.  Red is a narrower buffer for status quo.  Alt 3 was the original preferred option.  So, when you see a number in red, that means greater harvest as well as greater risk to substantially overfish.

MSST BUFFER FOR EACH STOCK

Stock Alt 1 (status quo) Alt 2 Pref Alt 3 Alt 4 Alt 5 Alt 6
Gag 13% 13% 25% 15% 25% 50%
Red Grouper 20% 20% 25% 15% 25% 50%
Red Snapper 9% 9% 25% 15% 25% 50%
Vermillion Snapper 25% 25% 25% 15% 25% 50%
Gray Triggerfish 27% 27% 27% 15% 25% 50%
Greater Amberjack 28% 28% 28% 15% 25% 50%
Hogfish 25% 17.9% 25% 15% 25% 50%

In most cases, you will see a council decide on the middle of the road or preferred option.  The preferred option gives a little to the group who wants to harvest more while not putting the stock at risk.  Believe it or not, the option that was accepted was Alt 6.  These seven reef species will now be managed under the maximum allowable buffer by law.  Red snapper will have the greatest movement from a 9% buffer to a 50% buffer.  The longer lived species will suffer the most.  We are now completely at the mercy of the council to address any major fluctuations in these seven species.  It will be interesting to watch this unfold.  As states push for more rights to manage their own fisheries while increasing the MSST buffer to the maximum allowable amount, there’s an excellent chance that these species will be on the decline for years until they are finally declared overfished.  Once declared overfished, rebuilding will be incredibly restrictive due to the hole we are digging ourselves.

The Conservation Ethos of Recreational Anglers

The Red Snapper Wars in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years have been illuminating in many ways. If there is one thing that nearly everyone can agree on (and that’s a pretty big “if”), it is that the current management regime needs change. From a stock on the brink of collapse in the early 1990’s to a federal fishing season on the brink of collapse in 2017, fresh perspectives are sorely needed.

Anglers have been pursuing red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico since the middle of the 19th century. In the early days of the fishery, fishing effort couldn’t put a dent in the stock. But just as anglers were beginning to access the fishery in those days, railroads and the ice industry were making it possible to move fish to markets farther inland, creating a demand for Gulf seafood away from the coast, and thus turning fishing into a viable commercial enterprise. Yet there were still plenty of fish, and the stock remained resilient.

But increasing pressure didn’t come from commercial fishermen alone. The health of fish stocks, it turns out, is intimately connected to the abundance of another species: humans. As the human population of the Gulf region and the rest of the country grew, and with the invention and proliferation of the automobile, and then the highways and interstates to accommodate them, the number of anglers looking simply to enjoy a few days of saltwater and sunshine grew proportionately.

And of course red snapper are not the only game species to face increasing pressure from human utilization over the years. In fact, I can’t think of a single game species that hasn’t. Some have fared better than others. Populations of waterfowl and whitetail deer, for example, have come roaring back from near collapse in earlier decades of the 20th century.

On the other side of the ledger, one thinks of the American bison, hunted to near extinction in a few short years in the 1870’s. They have since come back, but to nowhere near the level at which significant utilization by humans would be possible. Or there is the Newfoundland cod fishery, abundant and productive until it suddenly collapsed, as it were overnight, in the early 1990’s. Only in very recent years has the stock begun to show possible signs of a creeping recovery, although at nothing close to a rate that would make for a sustainable fishery in the foreseeable future. One need hardly mention the fate of the passenger pigeon. Miles-long flocks of passenger pigeons are said to have blotted out the sun in the 19th century, and they were a wildly popular game species… until they weren’t. The last passenger pigeon in the world, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

In every case, sportsmen have had a hand in the over-exploitation of fish and game, but sportsmen have also played a crucial role in the recovery of those species that have in fact recovered, leading the way in advocating for sensible and sustainable regulation. Unlike most politicians and activists, hunters and anglers have firsthand knowledge of fish and wildlife populations, habitats and foodwebs, predator-prey relationships, and the interconnectedness of it all with human communities. This is what has led so many sportsmen to become advocates for fish and wildlife through the years.

The case is no different in our time than it was in Theodore Roosevelt’s. Many of our fish stocks are doing well. Some, like red snapper, have recovered significantly from historic lows in the living memory of even some of the younger members of the fishing community. But the voices of recreational anglers still need to be heard. That has become abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, in the red snapper policy fiasco that has played out this summer. From the original announcement of a 3 day season in federal waters, to the ad-hoc extension of the season to 39 days by the Secretary of Commerce, policy has been lurching from one extreme to another.

Fisheries and fishermen deserve smart, sustainable, and efficient management. For this to happen, recreational anglers need to equip themselves with the facts, keep their eyes focused on the ultimate goal of a healthy and sustainable resource, and let their voices be heard.

If You’ve Seen One EFP You’ve Seen Them All… Right?

With all the recent uproar about red snapper and the management issues facing that fishery, I was concerned about some of the “facts” I was hearing about Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Exempted Fishing Permit, or an EFP, as a possible solution to the limited amount of federal fishing days this year. I had never heard of an EFP before so I did some research to make sure I understood what this experimental program was trying to achieve and where it had come from.

Here are the facts about the proposed EFP. In order to test an electronic reporting system, LDWF requested approval to allow 150 participants to fish outside of the normal federal season and catch 25,000 pounds of snapper starting in 2018. In return for the opportunity to fish outside of the federal season, these participants would report their catch using a smart phone app. This data would then be verified using Louisiana’s current data collection system, LA Creel. This smart phone app would give data collectors almost real time information on the red snapper being caught and thus prove to the federal government, who currently manages the red snapper fishery, that Louisiana could provide accurate data of the catch and be trusted with managing the state’s red snapper fishery out to 200 nautical miles (NM) as opposed to the current state season allowing Louisiana recreational anglers about 270 days on the water out to 9 NM.

When LDWF introduced this pilot program, the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana (CCA) and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) representatives opposed this program. Opponents of the EFP called the EFP an attempt to privatize a public resource and an attempt to give a few individuals an opportunity no one else would be getting. The opposition had tag line after tag line ready to fire at LDWF and this program and were relentless in their efforts to make sure it died on the vine. Articles like this one and this one show the opposition were ready to make unfounded comparisons to kill this program. This experimental program was neither a regulation nor was it law; in fact it was just a two-year experiment. It was not designed to test limited entry, individual fishing quotas, or privatizing a public resource. It was an experiment to test electronic reporting.

What was confusing was why these groups were so opposed to an experimental program trying to achieve what recreational anglers had been asking for, more days in federal waters and more flexibility to fish when they wanted? What I have recently learned may shed some light on their opposition.

Earlier versions of EFPs promoted by environmental groups have attempted to introduce a fish tag program. These earlier versions were going to give recreational anglers who bought a fishing license a certain amount of tags for red snapper that could be fished anytime of the year in federal or state waters. CCA representatives made sure to slam this concept into the ground because they didn’t want a tag program for red snapper because they believed it wouldn’t give every angler enough fish to catch throughout the year. This article illustrates that point.

Could it be that the proposed EFP was a case of guilty by association? When LDWF tried to introduce this latest version the opposition thought it was another attempt at a tag program and were not willing to give it a fair chance since they believed it was the same as earlier iterations. The irony is that those who opposed this program are asking for exactly what this program is trying to provide. They support legislation seeking to improve data collection and management, and they purport to support state management of the red snapper fishery out to 200 nm.

The EFP would have used a subsample of fishers and a subsample of fish. Experiments are always conducted on smaller portions of a population as it is impossible to experiment on the whole population of anglers using the entire population of fish. The detractors of this EFP are so focused on the subsample of anglers and fish utilized in this experimental program, that they cannot see the true purpose is to test electronic reporting. So, in trying to kill a program they think is bad they are possibly killing their chances at achieving their own demands for the red snapper fishery by relying on the whims and vagaries of the U.S. Congress and not a state that is trying very hard to get the problem solved.