300 Scientists Defend Fishery Law

Sometimes it isn’t clear what side of the fence you should land.  In today’s polarized climate it is hard to trust any information you find.  In turn, deciding which side to take becomes increasingly difficult.

I’ve found in these cases you look for folks that don’t have a dog in the fight.  Do you stand to make money from the decision?  Well, I’m not prone to accept those ideas very easily.

When we look at the situation with Magnuson Stevens, we see two entrenched camps with directly opposing points of view.  One side desires more access to the resource and is looking to reauthorize our nation’s most important fishery law to enable one sector to fish more with less accountability. The other side wants to strengthen Magnuson Stevens and enhance the the ability of the law to address.  Both have strong arguments involving the economy, conservation, fairness, and the future of fishing.

Recently, 300 scientists from across the nation  weighed in on the issue and the message was clear, do not weaken Magnuson Stevens.  The scientists come from Miami, Seattle, Mississippi, North Carolina, California, and even the Farrallon Islands.  When a group this large and diverse cares enough to write a letter to congress, we should listen.  Plus, they don’t have that “dog in the fight” that’s a sure sign of bias.  These are university scientists that by and large got their jobs because they love learning about the resource and protecting it for future generations.

I encourage you to click the links and decide for yourself.  Should we weaken the law or should we think of future generations.

 

Tony Friedrich Testimony on Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

HEARING ON “REAUTHORIZATION OF THE MAGNUSON-STEVENS FISHERY CONSERVATION AND MANAGEMENT ACT: OVERSIGHT OF FISHERIES MANAGEMENT SUCCESSES AND CHALLENGES”

SUBCOMMITTEE ON OCEANS, ATMOSPHERE, FISHERIES, AND COAST GUARD COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, SCIENCE & TRANSPORTATION UNITED STATES SENATE

SEPTEMBER 12, 2017

My name is Tony Friedrich. I am a life-long recreational fisherman currently residing on the Eastern Shore of Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. From 2009 to 2016, I was the Executive Director of CCA-Maryland. We advocated for the Chesapeake Bay TMDL from the EPA. We protected forage species because 70% of resident striped bass had mycobacteriosis from malnutrition. We were leaders for striped bass conservation and also lead the charge of reasonable speckled trout regulations. I’ve seen good and bad fisheries management decisions, and I’ve seen fish populations either recover or crash as a result. In my experience, those failures always stemmed from one problem – a failure to put the resource first. Often, these bad decisions were possible because of a lack of strong rules, or because political pressure prioritized more fishing now instead of the health of the fish stock. Recently, there’s been more and more pressure to make it even easier for those bad decisions to happen. Decision-makers should resist these calls to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act, since their goal – your goal – should be the same as mine: to make sure I leave this country’s natural resources in better shape than I got them, so that my children and grandchildren can love the outdoors like I do. I’ve dedicated over 20 years of my life to that.

Background
My family came to this country and thrived because its abundant natural resources gave us food, freedom, and opportunity. In the mid 1700s, my decedents sought refuge from the Seven Years War, and carved out a life in the marshes of Louisiana. The natural resources provided them a chance to live free and make a better life. You will never find people who care more for the natural resources of America. The land and sea gave them an opportunity to prosper.

My first memories are fishing with a cane pole for bluegills at a farm pond in rural Tennessee. Since then, there has never been a single moment when my heart wasn’t firmly planted in the outdoors. I tell time by the tide and understand the habits and needs of fish far more than I ever will understand humans.

I am incredibly fortunate to have spent so much of my life working with fishermen to protect the natural resources we care about. I’ve sat on countless councils, advisory boards, and committees over the last
twenty years and for almost eight years while I was the Executive Director of CCA-Maryland. Through CCA, I worked with large groups of recreational fishermen, listening to their concerns and acting on them through grassroots advocacy. From the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, I used my influence to better the resource with the help of a small army of dedicated volunteers that believed in me and putting the resource first.

The fishermen I know care about conservation. We worked tirelessly on habitat issues, forage species conservation, and improving scientific methods and practices. We broke “the rules” by working hand in hand with environmental groups. My philosophy was simple: if you put the fish first, everything else works out. Too often, you see people fighting over their slice of the pie, always wanting a bigger slice even it means taking it from someone else, hurting the resource, and ignoring, or worse, defaming, the best available science. I tried to help folks understand that if you make the pie bigger, we’d all get along. It’s only through working together, bringing recreational and commercial fishermen, scientists and managers to the table, and making decisions that consider the long-term health of the resource, that we can all win.

The National Marine Fisheries Service released a survey in 2013. The survey looked at the attitude and preferences of saltwater recreational anglers from every coast. Almost ninety percent of the anglers valued spending time with family and friends more than any other aspect of the sport. Eighty percent of those surveyed just wanted to catch fish. Importantly, less than forty percent wanted to fill their limits every time out. This falls directly in line with my experience with the recreational sector. The bulk of fishermen want to encounter fish during their trips. Harvesting these fish is far less important. We fish for the experience.

So now you know who we really are. But, I sit here today to speak for the resource because it needs a voice. It needs a voice to remind decision-makers that things were far worse in the not so distant past. It needs a voice that says there are so many people in coastal communities that rely on a healthy resource. Frankly, there needs to be a voice of reason.

We’ve made progress towards sustainable fisheries, but that’s now in jeopardy
Prior to 1996, and the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), New England groundfish, red snapper, and summer flounder were on the verge of disaster. Pursuant to standards established by SFA, 86 different species were declared overfished. But thanks to that law and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act passed in 2007 (Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA), things started to slowly get better. Measures were put in place to set up annual catch limits (ACL) based on science that prevent overfishing. Depleted stocks were put into rebuilding plans to restore them to sustainable levels. As of June 30, 2017, only 30 of stocks are still on the overfished list, and most of those are either highly migratory species or part of the New England groundfish stock.

It is hard to think of another a law that has such a positive impact in such a short time frame. When you dig a little deeper, you begin to understand that MSA’s robust system of standards and stakeholder participation empower decision-makers to make the right decisions. All too often lately, we hear complaints about how catch limits negatively impact the economy, and are unfair to recreational fishermen. But when stocks decline because of overfishing, businesses fail, communities suffer and there’s less fishing for everyone.

Gulf of Mexico red snapper and Mid-Atlantic summer flounder are somehow now the rallying cries for those who seek to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act. But the irony is, neither species would be available to catch if not for the catch limits and rebuilding plans required by the MSA.

It is an accurate statement when people say that they have never seen more red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Red snapper stocks crashed in the 90’s. It has been more than 50 years since the stock was truly healthy. The stock has recovered well in the past decade, but it still has a long way to go. And yes, the federal red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico is short, but that’s not the fault of MSA. The recreational sector has consistently overfished red snapper. The average size of the fish is growing. State seasons take 70-80 percent of the recreational quota, leaving very little for the federal season. As an example, Texas has a 365 day season with a four fish limit. Then, the states and some Gulf anglers get upset when the season in federal waters is shortened. Instead of solving the problems of overfishing and long state seasons, people are attacking the National Marine Fisheries Service and MSA. In reality, everyone should be thanking them from the return of the iconic fish.

The numbers tell the story. In 1990, red snapper landings were just slightly over 4 million pounds. By 2000, the landings increased to almost 10 million pounds. In 2014, the landings were just short of 16 million pounds. We are watching a success story in the making. Red snapper spawning potential hasn’t been this high since 1968. However, red snapper can live to be 50 years old. The oldest fish are the most valuable to the resource.

A 5 year old red snapper produces 8x the eggs of a three year old and a 10 year old produces 33x the eggs of a 3 year old. Since red snapper stocks are managed on spawning potential and snapper are long lived, rebuilding will take a while. Right now, the bulk of the population is about 10 years old. The numbers are rising but we have to be patient because that is what the biology of the fish demands.

Likewise, summer flounder was chronically overfished at the end of the 20th century. I’ve seen that population ebb and flow over the last twenty years. Every single time we’ve taken cuts, we’ve seen improvement. In 2016, stock assessment updates indicate that fishing mortality exceeded the threshold by 26%. The spawning stock biomass is only 58% of the target and sits only 16% above the threshold. The overall biomass has been trending downward since 2010. This has been driven by low recruitment and also illegally harvested flounder that may have resulted in large overages of the fisheries annual catch limit. New York and New Jersey caught 88% of the total quota in 2016. The two states totaled 4.771 million pounds while the coast wide quota is 5.42 million pounds. Science told us that drastic reductions in harvest are needed. New Jersey just went out of compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s summer flounder management plan. New Jersey fishermen created a narrative that reductions would destroy the industry. So, we have a state that has the lion’s share of the fish and may now be overharvesting, too.

More flexible systems fail to manage sustainably
We hear an awful lot from those who claim to represent the recreational sector about the need for “flexibility.” If you want to see flexibility in action, look no further than the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). ASMFC isn’t held to the same standards as the eight regional councils established through MSA. ASMFC can ignore overfishing and is not required to rebuild overfished stocks. The results of this “flexibility” are much less impressive than fisheries regulated with annual catch limits and accountability measures.

Striped bass on the Atlantic coast, which is not managed under MSA, is a good example for why sustainable limits are needed. In 1986, the stock was collapsing. East Coast anglers made only 300,000 trips. Rather than address the issue when the first signs of decline became apparent, ASMFC bowed to political pressures to do nothing, and waited until severe measures were necessary. A full moratorium was put in place in federal waters, and several states closed their seasons as well. The stock started to recover, and was declared rebuilt in 1995. Immediately, the number of striped bass trips jumped to 5,000,000. By 2007, the number of trips was a staggering 10,500,000. During that timeframe, the coast wide creel limit stayed at two fish at a 28”minimum size limit; the creel limit never changed. . The lack of an annual catch limits leaves striped bass very vulnerable to overfishing. Annual catch limits allow the managers to respond more quickly to changes in the fishery. However, striped bass is managed by mortality rates, an “alternative” management measure many tout today as the way forward. But what it means is we can’t compare our catch to a sustainable limit at the end of each season – we have to wait years for stock assessments to tell us how the stock is doing. While we are waiting, we are still fishing at the same rates. This leaves striped bass in a situation where it takes years to acknowledge overfishing and even longer to address it. Currently, striped bass numbers are declining again. The spawning stock biomass is hovering just above the threshold to be declared overfished. Trips have fallen to just over 6 million. If we want to support the $115 billion dollar recreational industry and the 800,000 jobs it supports, we should focus on stable and abundant fish populations that are managed by science-based annual catch limits and for the benefit of the general population.

And it’s not just striped bass that is in decline under ASMFC’s more flexible management system. Weakfish populations are so low that there might not be enough genetic diversity left to support a viable stock. Weakfish were once a staple of the Chesapeake Bay. Every tackle shop had rows and rows of local lures called “trout bombs” lining the aisle. You could go out and have a reasonable expectation that you would catch weakfish from the mouth of the Potomac to north of the Bay Bridge. In 2002, the weakfish population dropped below the spawning stock biomass threshold. In 2009, a stock assessment was completed that showed weakfish population at 3% of an unfished stock. It took seven years to begin to address the plummeting population of weakfish under ASMFC. We kept the same creel and size limits in place during that time period knowing all the while that the population was in serious trouble. The years of inaction decimated the population to a point where draconian measures had to be implemented to save the stock. I’d much rather make minor adjustments to harvest on an annual basis rather than see a stock collapse. After all this, ASMFC still refused to take the advice of scientists and close the fishery. If they had taken this action, the stock might have recovered by 2020. Now, we don’t know if it ever will.

The case of spot is no different. Spot are managed on abundance and harvest metrics know as a TLA, not annual catch limits. The TLA (Traffic Light Analysis) is a precautionary management tool that identifies trends and suggests management options. It is not as effective as annual catch limits. Spot abundance is on the decline. The first ever coast wide stock assessment is currently under review. In the meantime, spot have become the number one bait for striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay. It is not uncommon for anglers to go out with hundreds of spot in their live wells. The TLA and stock assessment process lacks the regulatory strength and timely response necessary to account for trends in increased effort.

Please, take it from me and the rest of the recreational anglers of the Chesapeake Bay, you don’t want to use ASMFC as a model. American eel, American shad, horseshoe crabs, and tautog are also on the decline. ASMFC staff and scientists are top notch, but ASMFC as a governance body is not bound by MSA. There are no ACL’s or accountability measures. They have plenty of flexibility. There is no legal authority to follow science even for setting rebuilding timelines. It doesn’t work.

The science is sound and better than it has ever been, but there’s room for improvement
Accurate and timely catch information is critical to making effective fisheries management decisions. For the recreational sector, that catch and effort data is provided by MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program), a national program overseen by NMFS but in nearly all cases is implemented by states. While MRIP isn’t perfect, it was recently reaffirmed as both legitimate and accurate by the National Academy of Sciences. Yet MRIP is being called into question by the same people asking for more flexibility. Anyone who remembers MRFSS (Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey) should embrace MRIP. Under MRFSS, phone numbers were taken from a phone book. The first question in the survey was “Do you fish?” Currently, under MRIP, every angler is issued a FIN (Fishery Identification Number) thus supplying managers with a database of actual fishermen.
Gathering recreational data is hard. Recreational fishing involves large numbers of individuals fishing from many different locations, making it very difficult to estimate the number of fish caught. But MRIP is doing a decent job, according to the National Academy of Science: “MRIP has made significant improvements in gathering information through redesigned surveys, strengthening the quality of data.
Although many of the major recommendations from the 2006 report, “National Research Council. 2006. Review of Recreational Fisheries Survey Methods. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
https://doi.org/10.17226/11616.” have been addressed, some challenges remain, such as incorporating technological advances for data collection and enhancing communication with anglers and some other stakeholders.” We’ve come a long way from cold calls, and both the catch and effort data from MRIP has vastly improved. The system becomes more accurate as the number of surveys grows.

With that said one of the key problems in getting more in-season data is that the state survey programs use vastly different methodologies and send their data to MRIP at inconsistent times. There is a significant calibration effort needed to make sure we aren’t comparing apples to oranges, and this means the data coming out of MRIP is delayed. The one exception is the LA Creel program out of Louisiana, which uses the same design as MRIP but can survey with greater frequency. It is odd that critics of MRIP are broadly supportive of the LA Creel program. To improve MRIP, we should follow the advice of the National Academy of Sciences and improve communication, technology, and survey rates. In addition, state surveys could be improved and designed to better fit with MRIP, and all our data programs could be better funded. If recreational fishing is worth $115 billion dollars and supports 800,000 jobs annually, shouldn’t we be funding it properly?

This is a chance to make things better for fisheries
We have an incredible opportunity in front of us with a reauthorization effort. We have a chance to secure healthy marine environments for generations to come. The fishermen I know want MSA to be more robust. They aren’t interested in removing annual catch limits and they know that “flexibility” is a euphemism for overharvest. They are also keenly aware that state management would remove many of the safeguards in MSA and open the door to overfishing; just look at New Jersey and summer flounder under ASMFC. We should embrace the opportunity to further protect our future. As fisheries around the world collapse, 89% of our domestic federal fisheries are not overfished.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working. But we can make it even better. Keep annual catch limits in place, don’t allow for more flexibility, support angler-led innovation, and work within the system to improve and fund scientific research:

  • Keep annual catch limits and accountability measures – it is the single most effective tool that fishery managers have had over the last ten years. Ignore the rhetoric and look at the numbers.
  • Managers and scientists need more funding, not less, for better and more frequent stock assessments.
  • Implement better catch and effort data collection methods for the recreational sector. Innovative, angler-led electronic tools, like smartphone apps, show a great deal of promise.
  • Have an honest discussion about how to best protect critical habitat areas like the Louisiana marsh, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Everglades.

Let’s take a page out of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation ethos and do the hard things now so we can reap the benefits for generations to come. Let’s not focus on next quarter’s results, let’s focus enabling the next generation to enjoy our natural resources.

My solemn prayer is that I can convince all of you that recreational fishermen are true conservationists. Our number one desire is to watch our children and grandchildren embrace the outdoor heritage that makes our country so unique. In the end, we just want to watch them smile from ear to ear as they are reeling in a fish.

Thank you for allowing me to participate in this process. I am forever grateful for this opportunity and look forward to ensuring my heritage for generations to come.

Fisheries Management – a brief overview of Magnuson-Stevens Act

Fisheries management in the United States is an incredibly complicated undertaking.  First, fish are hard to count.  Ducks, deer, and other terrestrial creatures are fairly easy to assess.  The oceans are so vast and complicated that marine biologists have an incredibly difficult task determining the overall health of a stock.

Technology was taking a toll on the resources.  Boats and motors became more reliable.  The advent of sonar, GPS, and monofilament lines gave us an incredible advantage over the fish.  As a result, fisheries became chronically overfished by the latter half of the 20th century.  Our elected officials knew something had to be done.  To their credit, they began the arduous task of crafting a law to guide us into the future.

This law would have to account for commercial and recreational fishermen as well as coastal communities.  It would also have to tackle the science, politics and economics of the resource.  It is a balancing act between managing the fish for the future as well as providing enough of the resource to sustain all the people who rely on it for a living.  Quite an undertaking, wouldn’t you say?  Elected officials did their job and presented The Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act to Congress is 1975.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is the main law that governs marine fisheries in U.S. federal waters.  The law is named after Warren G. Magnuson, former U.S. Senator from Washington state, and Ted Stevens, the former senator from Alaska.  It was first passed in 1976 and sought to stabilize our countries fisheries out to 200 miles from shore.

Before the passing of MSA, federal waters extended out 12 miles.  Beyond 12 miles, international fishing fleets worked the waters.  I still remember the stories from old salts about Russian trawlers off the coast of New Jersey dragging for summer flounder and sea bass.  MSA addressed that issue.  It also established eight regional councils tasked with developing fishery management plans (FMP’s).  The FMP’s must comply with MSA’s key objectives as well as the 10 National Standards.  Combined, these requirements provide principles that prevent overfishing, rebuild stocks, increase economic and social benefits, and ensure a supply of seafood.

Since 1976, Congress has twice made sweeping changes to the original MSA.  The first changes were made in 1996 with The Sustainable Fisheries Act and the second in 2007 called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act.   Measures are now in place to set annual catch limits (ACL’s) that are determined through stock assessments.  The stock assessment determines the health of the fishery and sets the ACL.  If an ACL is exceeded in any given year, there is a mechanism in place to account for the overage in catch.

So, how is MSA performing?  In 1996, 86 separate species were declared overfished.  Scores of species were disappearing.  New England groundfish, red snapper, summer flounder, and many others were on the verge of disaster.  Managers put the ACL’s in place after the 2007 reauthorization and true rebuilding began.  Currently, only 29 species are being overfished.  More notably, 89 percent of all fisheries that have an ACL are not being overfished.  That’s quite a turnaround in 20 years considering the biology of fish varies so dramatically.  Some species can live over 50 years with the oldest females being the most prolific spawners.  Recovery can vary greatly across species, yet the success stories keep coming.

As MSA ages, there will be more suggested reauthorizations.  In a country with so many laws that aren’t working, we need to value the ones that are effective.  MSA is a true success story that has passed the test of time.  It is our duty to be vigilant in the protection of MSA.  We must ensure a future for all fishermen through robust management safeguarded by a fair system of checks and balances.  MSA has guided us through dark times and we desperately need it to protect our heritage in the future.

H.R.2023 A Fisheries Bill with Hidden Problems

H.R.2023 – Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 is co-sponsored by Rep. Garrett Graves R-LA, Gene Green (D-Texas), Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.).  It is an attempt to address some concerns in fisheries management in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic.  However, H.R.2023 is not only an effort to reallocate the resource, but also a one way ticket to the land of overfishing.  The bill stems from the never ending saga of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.   Recreational anglers certainly need some relief in the Gulf red snapper fishery.  But, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Here’s the bill section by section and why is doesn’t pass the mustard.

Sec. 101. Process for allocation review for South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico mixed-use fisheries.

One of the ugliest parts of fisheries management is allocation.  It is something I tried to avoid at all costs.  Allocation and conservation don’t really mix well.  When you are arguing about who gets how much of the pie, you stop thinking about the health of the fishery.  This section calls for an allocation review within two years of the passage of the bill with additional reviews every three years.  The cost of this process is going to be staggering.  You will have each sector doing economic impact studies, all the while gobbling up valuable time and resources better spent in understanding the fish.

Sec. 102. Alternative fishery management.

This one has me scratching my head.  It could open up new exciting ways to conserve the resource. But, this is not the intention.  Alternative fishery management means no catch limits for recreational anglers.  A better way to put it is removing catch limits for certain species just for the recreational sector.  How so?  See Sec 105.

Sec. 103. Moratorium on limited access privilege programs for mixed-use fisheries.

Catch shares must be really bad if you want to place a moratorium on them.  Catch shares aren’t perfect and probably deserve an article unto themselves.  However, they do have merit and aren’t giving away a public resource to a private entity.  The commercial quota remains the commercial quota.

Sec. 104. Rebuilding overfished and depleted fisheries.

I think all of you understand that fish species biology differs greatly across the spectrum.  So why would anyone want to set a 10 year limit on rebuilding?  It does try to address that with the following language.

“10 years, except in cases where the biology of the stock of fish or other environmental conditions dictate otherwise; or

(II) the sum of the time in which the affected stock of fish is expected to surpass its maximum sustainable yield biomass level in the absence of fishing mortality, and the mean generation of time of the affected stock of fish”

Sec. 105. Modifications to the annual catch limit requirement.

This is the bad one.  ACL’s would not be required when we are fishing below the target.  So, there it is.  We are essentially removing the best tool we have.  Prior to ACL’s being mandatory, there were more than 80 separate stocks experiencing overfishing.  That number has dropped to under 30 with ACL’s in place.  We won’t have healthy fisheries when they aren’t managed with limits.  The bill would only be for recreational fishermen.  Essentially, allowing overfishing for one sector while having the other adhere to strict catch limits.  Doesn’t sound fair, does it?

Sec. 106. Exempted fishing permits.
Many new management practices need to be analyzed in limited capacities before becoming mainstream.  This would stifle any attempts at new management techniques.  So, EMP’s couldn’t be used to execute Sec 102 making Sec 105 an open door to overfishing.

Sec. 201. Cooperative data collection.

I applaud any attempt to improve recreational data collection.  Most of the problems we have with stock assessments could be resolved with better data collection methods from the recreational sector.  Technology could play a large role in getting a better handle  This section of the bill could go further to strengthen the mandate but at least there’s something positive.

Sec. 202. Recreational data collection.

Beyond the data collection, H.R.2023 is not in the best interest of healthy fish stocks.  It will reallocate the resource and remove the most powerful tool that managers have-ACL’s.  Our kids, coastal communities, and fisheries deserve something better than H.R.2023.  We need to go back to the drawing board and produce something that looks to the future for all by preserving our nation’s oceans.