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Published in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters: May/June 2011 Issue



Without aggressive sustained participation from recreational fishermen we may be in trouble


In 2006 Congress reauthorized the Magnuson Stevenson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, forcing managers to utilize the best available science to rebuild federal fisheries to sustainable levels within a predetermined timeframe, in most cases 10 years.  Today, as painful as the experience might be for fishermen, after decades of overfishing, we are currently rebuilding most fisheries.  Yet as we rebuild, we need to answer a very important question:  Are today’s marine ecosystems capable of simultaneously supporting healthy levels of all commercially and recreational important predators? 


Historically, healthy populations of such predator species have successfully coexisted.   But given current and growing demand on forage species (aka baitfish) that have traditionally sustained predators, and the large-scale fisheries that have arisen in response to such demand, coupled with fisheries managers’ unwillingness to manage such industrial harvest with larger ecosystems in mind, I’m not so sure they are. 


One needn’t look any farther than the Chesapeake Bay’s “fully recovered” striped bass population and the Mycobacteriosis plague to see how this all might play out.  Recent studies demonstrate that a poor diet affects the progression and severity of Mycobacteriosis in striped bass.  The localized depletion of menhaden is more than likely at fault for the widespread malnutrition in the Chesapeake’s striper population, causing stripers to become susceptible to an outbreak of the wasting disease.  Myco now affects almost 70% of the Chesapeake bass, and may kill just about all of the fish infected.  Those interested in killing more stripers will argue that striped bass are over-abundant and this is nature’s way of correcting the stock.  Such arguments might seem credible if one company in Reedville, VA wasn’t harvesting an astounding 80,000 metric tons of menhaden (perhaps the single largest part of the striped bass’ diet) from the Bay each year. 


Menhaden isn’t the only example.  In the U.S. North Atlantic, large-scale small-mesh net fisheries target Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, squid, and butterfish.  Badly depleted river-herring and shad are also caught in the massive nets used to make the high volume catches needed to make the small-mesh fishery profitable.   The large capacity and indiscriminate nature of such gear enables entire schools to be taken in a single haul.  On the West Coast, fisheries exist for Pacific herring, Pacific sardine, Pacific mackerel, northern anchovy, market squid and jack mackerel.  Along both costs, these fisheries remove forage critically important to a wide range of predators, such as bluefin and yellowfin tuna, swordfish, white marlin, striped bass, bluefish, summer flounder, salmon… the list goes on. 


Despite a growing public outcry by both recreational and some commercial fishermen, managers have been very slow to address the forage issue.  Arguably, this is because the small-mesh-net lobby is large, well funded and politically powerful.  They have full time employees who either sit on or attend every Council, Commission and Committee meeting that deals with forage.  Always well prepared and convincing, they have been successful in arguing against precautionary management that would ensure that there is enough forage.   It’s hard to counter such arguments because, when assessed individually and from a single-species perspective, very few forage species are technically overfished, nor is overfishing occurring.  That’s because these fisheries are managed simply for “Maximum Sustainable Yield”, an approach which maximizes long-term commercial production but gives no weight to ecosystems. 


Such an approach might be defensible for fish stocks higher up on the food-chain but it does not work for forage fish, as it doesn’t sufficiently account for dynamic predation.  Put simply there needs to be an abundance of forage to support recovering fish stocks, and that just isn’t taken into consideration to the extent it should be during stock assessments. 


Some fishery managers, as well as scientific advisors, maintain that estimating a “natural mortality” value for use in stock assessments accounts for predators.  But scientists admit that natural mortality, although a critical element of stock assessments, is one of the most difficult parameters to estimate, and is always one of the most uncertain elements in a stock assessment.    It’s almost always given a constant value, which is rarely adjusted to account for changing levels of predators or the availability (or lack) of other types of forage.      


Because of such uncertainties, managers must acknowledge that it’s currently impossible to accurately account for predation, and so precaution must be built into management decisions.  Recent studies demonstrate that, if natural mortality is underestimated, harvest will be set too high and lead to overfishing of the forage species.   Managing forage species for maximum sustainable yield does not and cannot adequately protect such species’ ecological role.  


There is mounting scientific evidence that even so-called “sustainable fishing” for a prey species whose abundance strongly influences population size of predators can cause dramatic shifts in “ecosystem communities”, and that the revival of communities that have changed states can be excruciatingly slow or even impossible unless the issue of forage is adequately addressed.   


To readers of this column, all of this may seem intuitive.  Fleets of large boats towing small-mesh-nets that scoop up hundreds and thousands of pounds of bait in a single haul will impact predator populations.   One would think that fishery managers would also recognize this and thus set management goals that allocate some percentage of the forage population the ecosystem. But that simply isn’t happening.  Instead, we’re getting “ping-pong accountability” - a frustrating back-and-forth between fishery managers and the scientific advisors.  Managers continue to maintain the status quo, while they wait for their scientists to advise them on whether or how to change. The scientists are accustomed to single-species stock assessment models and are not inclined to assess the stocks differently without instruction from the managers.  In the end, both fall back on the excuse that they are not required to take an ecosystems approach under present federal mandates.


Despite numerous declarations that it’s the policy of the US to protect, maintain, and restore the health and biological diversity of ocean and coastal ecosystems by independent blue ribbon commissions, Congress and the White House, none have the force of law.  The Magnuson Act encourages an ecosystems approach, but does not mandate it.   Taking a more precautionary approach to conserving forage remains entirely discretionary.  It would be nice to see new federal mandates, such as strict standards governing the use of forage fish for aquaculture and, ultimately, amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that would make ecosystem-based management a requirement, but this is not likely to happen any time soon. 


It’s been widely observed that the move to ecosystem-based fishery management will be “evolutionary, not revolutionary.”  But the recent refusal of managers to implement obvious incremental steps is increasingly frustrating.  More than a decade ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel recommended considering the effects of fishing on predator-prey relationships as the first step toward ecosystem based fishery management.   It’s an obvious place to start with the “evolution”, but industrial forage operations and there lobbyists have held up any action in that direction.


We need to fundamentally change the way we conserve and manage fisheries for prey species.  This is not a science issue, but also a policy decision that needs to be made by the Councils and Commissions.  We need ecosystems plans that include all important forage species, including those for which fisheries and/or management plans do not exist (e.g., sand eels, krill and copepods), in order to monitor their status, their role in the food web, and eventually to link fluctuations in their abundance to the abundance of managed species and the forage base as a whole.   This will take some time.  In the meantime Councils and Commissions can make a simple step forward by sufficiently accounting for predation in their forage-fish management plans.  


To move forward with even with this incremental step we will need increased public awareness in support of forage fish conservation and more aggressive stakeholder activism. While there are indeed some groups aggressively addressing the issue, there aren’t enough.   The bottom line is that concerned fishermen and environmentalists must come out in big numbers, at a higher level of activity, for a sustained period of time, until preserving the forage base is a management priority, because right now it simply isn’t, and this is going to be a big problem as we rebuild other fisheries, as they just won’t have enough to eat.