Better Science Means More Fish

"States should apply the precautionary approach widely to conservation, management and exploitation of living aquatic resources in order to protect them and preserve the aquatic environment. The absence of adequate scientific information should not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures (from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries)."

Or in fewer words, if you aren't completely sure of the outcome, don't take an action. It's called the "precautionary principle" and on face value it seems like a reasonable way to manage aquatic or other living resources. However, when this principle is combined with inadequate science and a far too rigid regulatory framework as it is in the U.S., it can and often does mean the end of many recreational and commercial fishermen's ability to keep on fishing.

large-flounder "Summer flounder (fluke) taken in a NMFS Northeast Science Center trawl survey" with credit "(from Northeast Fisheries Science Center/NOAA)”

The problem starts, as many problems in fisheries do, with limited resources dedicated to data collection and analysis. As anyone with a modicum of experience in fishing knows, fish tend to come and go. Some of these population fluctuations are cyclical, some aren't. We know some of the causes, like tides, prey availability, weather and water temperature. Many we don't. Not only do we understand very little about the relationships, most of them are out of our control. Obviously this makes the job of predicting how many of a particular species of fish are going to be out there kind of difficult.

Above all other issues is the challenge of accurately characterizing the fish stocks that are there. This is done through stock assessments, where a selected group of scientists get together periodically to review all of the relevant data regarding the size and condition of a particular stock to determine its abundance and health. Assessments of particular species are done at best every three years.

So, barring extraordinary circumstances (as in Congress demanding more immediate assessments when constituent pressure warrants it), management decisions can be based on conditions that were observed in the original stock assessment but might be several years out of date.

The watchword of the stock assessments is conservatism. In keeping with the precautionary principle, when there is doubt concerning data interpretation – and there is always doubt – the most conservative path is chosen largely because scientists tend to be conservative to begin with and doing otherwise might mean that fishermen would be allowed to catch too many fish. This is understandable considering the tens of millions of foundation dollars that have been spent over the last decade on convincing the public and the pols that catching too many fish (aka overfishing) is an immediate crisis and that its continuation will cause irreparable harm to the "overfished" stock and very possibly to the entire marine ecosystem. As George Gershwin wrote, "it ain't necessarily so." I'll take that up in a subsequent column.

Those of you who have a background in statistics or spend any time reading technical articles are familiar with the difference between numbers and statistics. You get a number by conducting an actual census of a population. Whatever they are, you count 'em. You get a statistic from estimating a population. You take samples and subject them to various statistical manipulations. This is what accounts for those explanatory symbols (± a quantity) that follow statistics in publications in most scientific disciplines. Not, alas, in fisheries publications. What you see definitely isn't what you get.

If you read that a biomass of species Z is 500,000 metric tons, for example, that doesn't mean that there are exactly 550 million pounds of Z swimming around out there, but (if the original figure is ± 25%, which is pretty good for fish statistics) that there are anywhere from 375,000 metric tons (mt) to 625,000 mt. The precautionary principle demands that the lower figure be used, which might very possibly explain why so many fishermen are and have been catching – and releasing – so many of the supposedly severely depleted red snapper. At an annual harvest level of 25% that would be a TAC (total allowable catch) of just over 90,000 mt.

And for those fishermen who are involved in wresting a percent or two of red snapper away from other fishermen, keep in mind that if the above 500,000 mt was estimated to ± 10% rather than ± 25% the range would be from 450,000 to 550,000 mt. That extra 15% of certainty, achievable with more and better science, could mean a TAC of 112,000 mt, an additional 22,000 mt.

But knee jerk conservatism is only the first level of precaution. Thanks to the last Magnuson reauthorization, each fishery management plan has layers above and beyond ... or actually beneath and below those that are inherent in the assessment process.

A regional Fishery Management Council's Scientific and Statistical Committee reviews the assessment of a particular stock to reduce the theoretical Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) to an Acceptable Biological Catch or ABC ("to account for data gaps; the greater the uncertainty, the lower the ABC"). Then the Annual Catch Limit is determined, and that is required by the Magnuson Act to be at or below the ABC. Guess which way that usually goes?

annual-fish-harvestFrom NOAA/NMFS

So we might be saddled with an annual catch limit – and all federal fisheries now have one – that is far lower than it realistically could be.


"ACLs (Annual Catch Limits) may be set for the fishery as a whole or for various fishery sectors (e.g., commercial or recreational). State-federal ACLs may be set for populations that are targeted in state waters as well as federal waters."
  • The setting of an ACL begins with specifying an overfishing limit (OFL).
  • OFL is an annual estimate of the maximum yield a stock can withstand without being put in jeopardy of overfishing (MSY).
  • Once an OFL is specified, an acceptable biological catch (ABC) level is recommended by the Management Council's (Council) Scientific and Statistical Committee.
  • The ABC is based on the OFL and should take into account scientific uncertainty which includes the uncertainty around the estimate of a stock's biomass and its maximum OFL.
  • The Council must then set an ACL which cannot exceed the ABC.
  • ACLs are set by managers and should take into account management and scientific uncertainty. Management uncertainty occurs because of lack of sufficient information about catch, and may include late catch reporting, misreporting, and underreporting of catches." (From NOAA/ NMFS)

Putting that in a real world perspective, in a memo dated September 5, 2013 the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management council staff recommended that the summer flounder (fluke) ABC be 9.006 mt in 2014. This was from an estimated spawning stock biomass of 51,000 mt. The OFL (= MSY) was estimated to be 12,163 mt. up to 3 thousand mt of summer flounder are being left uncaught because of scientific and management uncertainty. At a conservative two dollars a pound, commercial fish worth up to $3.6 million ex-vessel (that would ultimately pump up to $15 million into the coastal economy) are going to be left uncaught and thousands of recreational fishing trips won't take place because of scientific and management uncertainty. That's what the so-called precautionary principle is costing us.

But all of this precaution applies only to the fish populations, not to the fishermen who depend on the fish, the businesses that depend on the fishermen or the communities that depend on the businesses.

This is one of the most discouraging aspects of the current Washington administration's idea of fishery management. With all of its supposed emphasis on job growth, we've lost far too many jobs in fishing and in fishing dependent businesses already and are jeopardizing even more, many of these because of inadequate science and the overzealous application of the precautionary principle. This is as tragically obvious in the Southeast red snapper fisheries as it is in New England groundfish fisheries. But why do the fish get all of the precautionary breaks while all of those people whose economic and/or personal well-being depends on those same fish get none whatsoever?

To my knowledge no fish species has been driven to extinction by overfishing, and this goes back to those not so distant days when unregulated harvesting was the rule. In fact, in those fisheries which have been temporarily closed because of low population levels due to (actual or perceived) overfishing, where fishing was the actual culprit the stocks have recovered much more rapidly than predicted by the managers. Think spiny dogfish, striped bass and red snapper. Fish stocks are resilient when it comes to bouncing back after being subject to a bit of overfishing (as we're starting to learn from the groundfish fiasco, they aren't so resilient when it comes to other factors like rising water temperatures).

Fishing and fishing-dependent businesses have nowhere near that amount of resilience, particularly those that are dependent on waterfront locations (and as the economy continues to recover the development pressure on waterfront property is going to come back as well). So why do we have a management regime that is totally focused on saving the fish while at the same time throwing recreational and commercial fishermen and recreational and commercial fishing businesses under the proverbial bus? The people from the ENGOs, who seem to be taking home pretty healthy salaries regardless of what the fish are doing, say that it's all going to be worth it "when the fish come back." Worth it to who?

The Online Fisherman

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