Sound Fisheries Management is No Fluke


Summer Flounder

photo credit: Michael McDonough via photopin cc

Recently a US Senate subcommittee held a hearing entitled “Developments and Opportunities in US Fisheries Management,” with testimony by federal, regional and state officials that focused on the need for collaboration in fisheries management and decision-making based on sound science.  More than two and a half hours of testimony and questioning by Senators focused on the role of science and the Magnuson Stevens Act in effective management of our nation’s fisheries, especially summer flounder or “fluke.” 

New York and New Jersey have long been embroiled in an interstate conflict over what New York Senator Chuck Schumer has called “our decades long fight to bring fairness, flexibility, and accountability into the management of summer flounder.”  To that point, a reoccurring theme in the testimony was that effective fisheries management requires high quality data and regular stock assessments.  This notion was also echoed at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing a week earlier.

What is clear in the early hours of debating MSA’s reauthorization is that stakeholders across the board are focused on a common top priority – simply, good science is fundamental to good management.  This reality is at the core of the interstate summer flounder battle, with NY arguing that the use of outdated data has led to an unequal allocation of fish between states.

Fluke is an important species.  Managed jointly by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, the 2012 stock assessment indicated that it is not overfished and that overfishing is not occurring.  Fishery managers have allocated 60% of the fluke harvest to the commercial fishery and 40% to the recreational fishery.  While the commercial quota is allocated between the states based on historical commercial landings (a common practice), the recreational harvest targets are assigned proportionally to the states based on estimated harvest data in 1998 using a data collection method called the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS).  Herein lies the cause of conflict.  MRFSS is antiquated and is actively being replaced. It is considered largely unreliable by anglers up and down the East Coast and limited in efficacy by managers, and 1998 was 15 years ago.  I’m willing to bet the characteristics of the fleet and the fishery have also changed significantly over that time.

The encouraging news is that new data exists and is ready to be operationalized.  According to Bob Beal, the Executive Director of the ASMFC, estimates of the new statistical survey used to estimate recreational catch – the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) –indicate changes in the recreational fishing patterns and fishing effort within the region.  In other words, current data is available for managers to make better management decisions based on what’s happening today, not 15 years ago.

Accurate, timely science and data is critical to effective fisheries management.  When the data is there, let’s use it.  And if it’s not, especially in an era of shrinking budgets and resources, creative solutions must be developed and implemented.  True to the very title of the Senate hearing, cooperative management presents a significant opportunity for fishery managers, scientists, fishermen and other stakeholders. It could result in benefits to management and environmental performance, as well as cost savings for management agencies.  Managers and scientists could do more to incorporate users’ knowledge of the resource so we can have more confidence in their conclusions.

The recent summer flounder hearing, and the House Natural Resources hearing the week before it, provided a useful focal point for Congress and the states by emphasizing the need for quality data and sound science in managing our fisheries, as well as the problems associated with relying on outdated science in constantly changing ecosystems.


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