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A Knack for Collective Dithering (The Oiliest Catch–Part 6)

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2012

381In fact, the health of the menhaden population has always been the business of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a 15-state organization that jointly regulates coastal fisheries. But seeing the commission in action does not inspire much confidence, even within its own ranks. It was a small moment, but seemed like a portent, when I got on a hotel elevator en route to a recent ASMFC meeting. The elevator voice said, “Going down,” and the only other passenger bleakly commented, “In so many ways.” He turned out to be the commissioner from the National Marine Fisheries Service. At the meeting itself, 45 people, mostly older white males, sat at tables arranged in a huge rectangle and collectively dithered.

They had previously decided to manage menhaden not just by traditional, single-species standards, but also based on how menhaden affect other species that depend on them as prey. A commissioner remarked that he couldn’t figure out how to do this kind of ecosystem management “in a pond in my backyard, much less in the Atlantic Ocean.” When a technical committee staffer said it would require $350,000 to develop rigorous scientific standards, a commissioner truculently suggested that activists in the audience come up with the cash. Then they voted to wait and see if the $350,000 might somehow turn up by their next meeting. Jim Price, who was there with his striped bass numbers, called it “management by procrastination.”

Until recently, scientists at both the ASMFC and the National Marine Fisheries Service repeatedly assured everyone that the menhaden population, though highly cyclic, was doing just fine. But Price kept saying otherwise, and other recreational fishermen—and, more gradually, fisheries biologists—lined up behind him. The failure of the menhaden, year after year, to come back in anything like the numbers seen even in the 1980s (much less the 1800s) also made the scientific assurances seem increasingly wishful.

The way fisheries biologists determine the health of the menhaden population is too complicated even for most commissioners to understand. As with other species, it involves a computer model with lots of assumptions built in. The model for menhaden has turned out over the past few years to be badly flawed. Until recently, for instance, it did not bother to calculate how many menhaden were being killed by bluefish, stripers, and other predators—meaning that a bigger take for commercial fishermen seemed sustainable. Then, in 2010, a Maryland state fisheries biologist working line by line through computer code noticed an error that effectively double-counted some menhaden data.

Finally, a peer review by independent scientists knocked out the most fundamental assumption in the menhaden model. When commercial fishermen talk about leaving enough menhaden in the water to produce 18.4 trillion menhaden eggs annually, they’re referring to an ASMFC standard. It’s based on the assumption that maintaining just eight percent of the menhaden population’s “maximum spawning potential” is good enough. That’s an unusually low number—“We don’t even manage some invertebrates at that level,” a Maryland fisheries biologist told me.

The peer-review panel said that the ASMFC had failed to protect the stock—and that verdict forced, at the very least, a show of change. At a meeting last year the commission voted to boost the eight-percent threshold to a minimum of 15 percent, with a target of 30 percent. It acknowledged for the first time that there had been “overfishing.” In fact, by its new standards, overfishing of menhaden has occurred in 32 of the past 54 years. It also made the somewhat Orwellian distinction that menhaden were not yet “overfished.” That is, they might be flirting with disaster. But they hadn’t arrived.

So far, none of these changes has had any effect on the menhaden fishery, and it’s possible they never will. Analysis by scientists suggests that rebuilding the menhaden fishery could mean cutting the catch by as much as 37 percent. But the commission has yet to decide whether to reduce the catch at all, or on what timeline. Commercial fishermen profess optimism that this process will work out in their favor.

The ASMFC’s critics, on the other hand, tend toward cynicism. “There’s a lot of politics surrounding this, probably more than in any fishery I’ve ever been involved with,” said Jud Crawford, a biologist with the Pew Environment Group. He worries that Omega Protein will thwart the process “or find a way to influence the stock assessment, which should not be possible in an ideal world.”

The cynicism derives in part from the commission’s one previous attempt to protect the menhaden. In 2005, responding to public protest, it set a limit on the menhaden catch in the Chesapeake Bay. But the limit was so high as to be “imaginary,” according to one ASMFC commissioner. “They would have had to significantly increase their fishing to reach the cap.” Even so, both the company and Virginia state officials vehemently resisted. Omega Protein’s lawyers drafted a legal brief, and Virginia’s then-attorney general, Bob McDonnell, used it to argue that Virginia could ignore the ASMFC cap. The eventual compromise was “a farce,” said Jim Price. “It’s now eight years without a single fish being saved.”

Virginia is already resisting any new limits on the menhaden catch. McDonnell, now governor, personally lobbied other governors before the ASMFC vote last fall to oppose raising the eight-percent standard. The state delegation has also maneuvered to delay any effort to rebuild the menhaden population, pushing for a ten-year schedule, twice the usual timeline for a recovery effort.

What will happen if the menhaden fishery ultimately faces a real reduction, on a tighter timeline? (A decision on the issue may come at the ASMFC meeting December 14.) A state senator in Virginia has already introduced legislation to secede from the ASMFC. But a more likely outcome would be another compromise, after years of legal wrangling.

Probably no one is more cynical about this process than Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin. After he published The Most Important Fish in the Sea in 2007, he said, Omega Protein sent a legal brief to the university, alleging factual errors and “implying that they were going to take Rutgers to court if it didn’t shut me up.” The tactic failed, but it touched a sensitive nerve for Franklin, who was once forced out of a tenured post at Stanford University for his leftist political activities. Asked what he thought was likely to happen with the menhaden fishery now, he hesitated for a moment, then remarked, “The line from Chinatown popped into my head: ‘As little as possible.’”

(See The Oiliest Catch–Conclusion.)

One Response to “A Knack for Collective Dithering (The Oiliest Catch–Part 6)”

  1. Ed Saugstad said

    The Tragedy of the Commons revisited….

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