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Flyfishing in Saltwaters
THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE AND HARD LESSONS LEARNED
Comparing striped bass and summer flounder tells us a lot
By Capt. John McMurray
The recovery of the striped bass is arguably the only fishery management success on the northeast coast. Because of their abundance, their proclivity to frequent shallow water, their willingness to eat a fly, their capacity to give a good fight and their potential to grow quite large, they are almost certainly the species most often targeted by flyfishers in the Mid Atlantic and Northeast.
Anglers are reporting fewer larger, older fish than they encountered just a few years ago, and this is a cause for concern (I plan to cover this in detail in the next issue), yet the striped bass stock is basically healthy. According to the stock assessment released last February, the striped bass has fully recovered from a frightening low point in the mid 1980’s. Currently, it is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.
That is a rare occurrence these days with any species that is considered good table-fare and is targeted by commercial fishers and recreational anglers. So why is it that striped bass stocks have rebuilt according to plan and other species, most notably summer flounder (fluke,) have not? The answer to that question lies in the “precautionary principle”, and the best way to illustrate it is to compare striped bass and summer flounder management in the context of how anglers value each species.
Back in November, Lee Crocket of Pew Charitable Trust got lambasted in the press for making that comparison. “In case you missed it, the Pew Environmental Group finally admitted what we have known all along: they just want to shut down fisheries,” noted RFA chairman Robert Healey in a letter to the editor of The Providence Journal “Crockett… suggests that a 10-year fishing moratorium ought to be imposed on summer flounder. His logic? It worked for striped bass in 1985.” Healey goes on to write “Unlike striped bass, where the fishery was near collapse and no longer a vibrant economic component of many fishing communities, summer flounder have been steadily rebuilding.”
The striped bass scenario does differ greatly from that of summer flounder, but not in the way that Mr. Healey suggests. Striped bass were in dire straits when strict management efforts, which included a moratorium in many states, were instituted. Today, the stock is fully restored. Summer flounder were also at historic lows when management measures were imposed. However, those measures were never stricter than the law required, and fifteen years later, although the population has begun a magnificent recovery, it is still far below the spawning stock biomass target established by NOAA scientists.
While Healey, as well as the New Jersey outdoor press who quoted him on numerous occasions, spent their time trying to twist Crockett’s words in an attempt to make him sound like an anti-angling zealot, Crockett was not calling for a moratorium at all. “Instead, we advocate taking a cue from striped bass management and heeding scientific warnings to take aggressive action to restore summer flounder stocks” said Crockett. “Far from closing the fishery, our aim is to save it.” Crockett was right to compare the management of striped bass and summer flounder, as stripers present a good example of what can be achieved when real sacrifices are made and precautionary measures are implemented for the long-term good of a fishery, and summer flounder illustrate what happens when managers take a different path.
Both species hit population low points in the mid to late 80's, with stripers bottoming out a few years ahead of fluke. In the case of striped bass, managers established thresholds which would have to be reached prior to any easing of regulations. The watchword was always CAUTION, and despite vocal protests from some corners of the fishing community, managers stuck to that approach. Even today, with a fully recovered stock, managers have set a catch target significantly lower than the overfishing threshold. This provides a buffer which allows catch to exceed the target (which it has in many years) without ever exceeded the overfishing threshold. Because overfishing never occurred, managers did not need to impose tighter restrictions and regulations could remain consistent over the years.
With fluke, there was no such caution. The catch target was set right at the overfishing threshold, so any time the catch was greater than the target it automatically led to overfishing and problems with changing regulations. And the fluke fishing target was exceeded in every year since the management plan was adopted. Given the enormous pressure from the fishing industry to fish fluke at the highest possible level, there was never any meaningful effort to get overfishing under control. Even after being warned of slowed recruitment, potential inaccuracy in the model and the likelihood of greater restrictions in the future if a precautionary approach was not adopted, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council repeatedly opted for the highest landings permitted by law. The result was serial overfishing and ultimately ever-tightening regulations that hurt anglers but, because they were never quite tight enough, failed to end overfishing and just led to additional rounds of pain and sacrifice.
NOAA Fisheries is now required by law to rebuild summer flounder to the target spawning stock biomass by 2013, although overfishing continues to occur. Significant cutbacks have again been mandated for 2008, and will undoubtedly hurt the recreational fishing industry. Yet, despite all the hardship, few if any members of the industry will admit that much of the harm could have been avoided if fluke were managed with the precautionary principal in mind.
It is likely that summer flounder managers could have avoided today’s problems had they implemented a target catch rate that is below the defined overfishing threshold for the species. “Such a "precautionary buffer," which was used so successfully in the case of striped bass, is a proven, commonsense approach in light of uncertainties inherent in fisheries science. “ wrote Mike Flaherty in a letter to the South Coast Today . Yet when it comes to summer flounder (and so many other species), many connected to the fishing industry consider the notion of precautionary buffers “extremist”, and deem those recommending such precaution “radical environmentalists” who want to end all fishing. Even now, setting recreational regulations to achieve a target harvest 20-25% below the recreational allowable catch would make sense, but there is no doubt that any attempt to do so would be bitterly opposed and those whom suggested it would be unfairly portrayed in the angling press.
The differing management strategies undoubtedly have much to do with how anglers value both species. Because of the attributes listed in the opening paragraph, striped bass are valued primarily for their “game” qualities than as foodfish. Flyfishers rarely consider killing more than one or two a year if they take any at all, and “keeper” sized fish are frequently returned to the sea by most anglers. Some argue that the whole notion of saltwater “catch and release” ethic in the northeast was largely spawned by the magnificently handsome striped bass and its extraordinary comeback.
Summer flounder, on the other hand, are not generally prized for their fighting qualities. Instead, they are prized as a fine eating fish, and emphasis has historically been on filling the cooler. Even when populations were at their lowest, bag limits were generous and size limits small, if such limits existed at all, a stark contrast to striped bass which, even after the moratorium was lifted, saw a one-fish bag and 36-inch size limit imposed for a substantial time. Even some organizations that fought hard to keep the Exclusive Economic Zone closed to striped bass harvest, as a precautionary measure, are vigorously fighting for a much larger harvest of summer flounder than managers and scientists are recommending. The sporting, catch-and-release ethic that was so well-developed in the striped bass fishery just does not seem to apply with fluke.
That should not matter, as the law requires that all federal fisheries should be managed and rebuilt to sustainable levels based on the best available science. Yet in the situation of summer flounder, it is clear that politics and economics interferes with management far more than it should. This sort of interference is precisely what prevents managers from implementing precautionary measures and why many fishing communities have suffered greatly.
For more info on the summer flounder dilemma see McMurray exhaustive piece on the subject at Sport Fishing’s website: www.sportfishingmag.com/species/conservation/overfishing-is-no-fluke-1000042856-page-1.html