Number 16
February 24, 1998
Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
Flotsam and jetsam

We usually try to devote each FishNet to a single subject. In this edition we find it useful to cover a number of topics in somewhat less detail. Where possible we will expand on these particular areas at the NJ Fishing website and suggest that if you are looking for more in-depth material you start there.

Are habitat issues finally getting their due?

Image of Seattle, WA waterfront development As those of you who have been reading NJ FishNet since its inception are aware, it’s our feeling that there are many factors impacting on fish stocks that are of possibly equal or greater significance than fishing pressure. Perhaps it’s because of all of the attention that the dramatic - and sometimes tragic - El Nino-related effects have generated, perhaps the high visibility of such vivid examples of habitat deterioration as last year’s Pfiesteria outbreaks or the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone (see box below), perhaps just that our way of looking at estuarine, coastal and oceanic systems is evolving. Whatever the reasons, we’ve been very pleased to see that in the past several months these non-fishing impacts have been given much more attention than they have been in the past. (See the following discussion on ecosystem management) 
“It can stretch for 7,000 square miles off the coast of Louisiana, a vast expanse of ocean devoid of the region's usual rich bounty of fish and shrimp, its  bottom littered with the remains of crabs and worms unable to flee its suffocating grasp. This is the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone," which last summer reached the size of the state of New Jersey.Alarmed, the White House recently commissioned six teams of scientists to begin the first large-scale study of the area, hoping for a remission or cure. The dead zone, researchers say, is emblematic of the growing ills suffered by the planet's seas. Earlier this month, hundreds of scientists, marking 1998 as the international Year of the Ocean, warned that unless action is taken, overfishing, coastal development, and pollution will multiply the kinds of problems that already plague the gulf. The trouble with the dead zone is that it lacks oxygen, scientists say, apparently because of pollution in the form of excess nutrients flowing into the gulf from the Mississippi River. Animals in this smothering layer of water near the bottom of the sea must flee or perish.” (from A 'Dead Zone' Grows in the Gulf of Mexico By Carol Kaesuk Yoon - Copyright 1998 by The New York Times Link to Dead Zone article) 
Driven by the rapid pace of population growth and economic development, dead zones are a new and largely unstudied problem that is growing more quickly than governments and scientists can keep up with it. Scientists say that in just the past few years, as many as a dozen dead zones have appeared in different areas of the world, all caused by the same combination of agricultural fertilizer and sewage runoff. "No other parameter of such ecological importance has been changed so drastically in such a short period of time by human activities as dissolved oxygen contents in the world’s oceans," said Robert J. Diaz, a researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and president of the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society. (from the New Orleans Times Picayune's The Dead Sea article in the Oceans of Trouble series Link to Oceans of Trouble Dead Sea article)

“Risk-Averse” Fisheries Management

Over the past several years some fisheries managers have been promoting management strategies that are termed “risk averse.” The underlying philosophy is that, when uncertainty exists about either the initial condition of the fishery being managed or the effects that the management measures will have on the condition of the fishery, the management measures put in place should be designed to minimize the impacts of fishing on the fish. In essence, the fish being managed are assumed to be much less able to withstand fishing pressure than the fishing businesses are able to withstand the economic penalties that overly-restrictive management measures would bring.

At first glance this seems like a reasonable approach, particularly considering the way in which the risk-averse measures are usually presented. A 20% reduction in the commercial harvest of a particular species might be proposed rather than a “riskier” 10% reduction. The supporters of such a management philosophy, people almost always working for a regular paycheck, equate this to a cut in pay to the affected fishermen, and the difference between a 20% and 10% pay cut isn’t all that great, especially if it’s someone else’s pay getting cut.

But is that the way the affected fisherman or dock operator or wholesaler sees it? Of course not. His or her operating expenses are high and for the most part fixed. The mortgage on the boat, the insurance, the fuel, the amount of wear and tear on the equipment and other expenses don’t diminish as the allowable catch does. A seemingly small reduction in what a fisherman is allowed to catch usually means a much larger reduction in his or her take-home pay and a much greater impact on the viability of his or her business.

This, of course, would have to be acceptable if the fisheries being managed were as threatened as some of the groups committed to “saving the oceans” would have us believe (or if we were reasonably certain that it was fishing pressure that was “driving” our estuarine, coastal and open ocean ecosystems). But their crisis-oriented rhetoric totally ignores the fact that commercial fishing in our coastal and ocean waters has only been restrictively managed for the last ten or fifteen years, that prior to that there were few controls on how, when or where a fisherman could work, that twenty years ago foreign fleets of  distant water catcher/processors were intensively fishing with no restrictions a “cannon shot” beyond our beaches, and that our fisheries survived all of that.

To suggest that today’s commercial fishermen, with the gear, area, time, size and quota restrictions they are complying with, could have an impact greater than that inflicted on the stocks in the past seems at best disingenuous. It’s obvious that the fish stocks are capable of surviving much more fishing pressure than that of today’s highly regulated commercial fleets. It’s questionable how many of the small businesses that make up our commercial fishing industry can absorb much more risk-averse management. Once these businesses are lost, for a myriad of reasons they will probably not be replaced.

The case for Ecosystyem Management

There has been a growing movement in some scientific circles to adopt a more “holistic” approach to living marine resource management. Several years ago, when this movement began to receive some notice, it was termed “Ecosystem Management” and was unfortunately taken by some members of the fisheries management establishment as a threat to what has become the accepted way of managing fisheries - managing fishing effort and ignoring other equally or possibly more relevant factors.

While we plan on devoting an entire FishNet to this subject in the near future, we would like to direct your attention to the article on it that was part of the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s award winning series on the state of the world’s fisheries that is available at both the Pulitzer [Link to Pulitzer reprint of the series] and Sigma Delta Chi websites [Link to Sigma Delta Chi reprint of the series].

"Ecosystem scientists argue for a shift away from just managing fishing toward a more comprehensive approach taking into account habitat, current flow and interactions with other species. But the new approaches face many obstacles. Scientists violently disagree, for example, on the role of chaotic changes in fish populations. Many fishery scientists say any chaotic changes will almost always be impossible to separate from other factors that aren’t chaotic. And while agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service employ new techniques as they can, they must function in an era when government is shrinking — not expanding its mandates across entire ecosystems. ‘‘One reason fish management spends a lot of effort on controlling fishing is that’s what the law allows fish managers to control. That has the most immediate impact, and that’s what the public is most concerned about,’’ said Bradford Brown, director of the Southeast Regional Science Center of the Fisheries Service, who is also an expert on ecosystem modeling. But the biggest problem is history. Institutions are set up and budgets are determined the way they are because agencies have been doing it that way for decades, not because their approaches are the best."  (from Bold new ‘chaos theory’ says fishery experts way off track by John McQuaid from Oceans Of Trouble - Day 8 of 8 Copyright 1996 by the Times - Picayune, New Orleans, LA)
Legislation and fisheries management
Increasingly legislative bodies are being used to circumvent the science-based management systems which have been put in place to insure that the benefits of the fisheries resources belonging to all of us are utilized in a sustainable and equitable manner. It seems that in most of these instances legislation is sought by small, narrowly-focused interest groups because the appropriate management authorities won’t support their self-serving positions.

This focused political pressure continues to be the reason that well over seven million non-fishing consumers in New Jersey are by law denied the right to enjoy the ocean-fresh striped bass that are so abundant today in our coastal waters. New Jersey legislator’s have demonstrated a willingness to ignore the rights of the non-fishing majority of their constituents to grant the total harvest of striped bass to a small but vocal handful of sportsfishermen. Emboldened by this and self-righteously proclaiming their agenda is motivated by conservation rather than a desire for the exclusive use of our coastal waters for their entertainment, recreational fishing groups are now intent on using the legislative process to bypass the management system in other fisheries as well.

As we’ve stated in these pages before, sportsfishing is a large and important segment of the coastal economy in New Jersey. We in the commercial fishing industry recognize that the businesses that provide the recreational opportunities to those citizens who chose to catch their own fish are facing many of the same challenges that we are. We have not suggested - either through the management process or through our elected representatives in Trenton or Washington - that the non-fishing majority that we serve has any greater claim to the fish or shellfish from our rich coastal waters than the sportsfishermen and women do. But, by the same token, we can’t agree that the sportsfishing community is exclusively entitled to entire species of fish simply because they chose to - or can afford to - invest the time, effort and money into catching those fish themselves.

In the commercial fishing industry we’ve made a commitment to strengthening the fisheries management process. That’s where our future lies. It’s unfortunate that some of our sportsfishing colleagues with the help of a few legislators would rather circumvent that system than improve it. Our fisheries resources and the non-fishing public deserve much more.

New Jersey FishNet is supported by Atlantic Capes Fisheries, the Fishermen’s Dock Cooperative, Lund’s Fishery, the National Fisheries Institute and Viking Village Dock