“We are on the precipice of changing the way we do recreational management for the first time in two decades.”
That’s a quote by Capt. Adam Nowalsky from the September 9th meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council. Nowalsky, former captain of the charter boat Karen Ann II out of Atlantic City, has been actively involved in fisheries management for 20 years. He has served on citizen advisory committees of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council, chaired the New Jersey Chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, and is legislative proxy for New Jersey to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (Commission).
Currently in his third and final term (expiring in 2024) as New Jersey’s obligatory representative at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council), Nowalsky has been a dogged advocate for recreational fishermen working within an often frustrating bureaucratic process. So, hearing his confidence booming across the internet during the last online meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council came as a bit of intriguingly good news.
“We’ve used the same process for almost 20 years for setting size, season and bag limits, and for the first time in two decades we now have four new alternatives that were put before the (Commission) Board and Council for consideration,” Nowalsky said, calling the new alternatives “an attempt at significant change, the likes of which quite frankly I have not seen in my professional participation in the fishery nor my time as advisor on the councils and boards.
If you’ve been hoping for changes in the way that fluke and sea bass are managed in terms of allowing better access while still ensuring sustainability of the stocks, read on.
As detailed at the Council website (mafmc.org), a new joint initiative started between the two fisheries management bodies – the Council and Commission – is called the Recreational Reform Initiative or RRI, which if implemented, would consider improvements to management of recreational fisheries like summer flounder, porgy, black sea bass, and bluefish. First initiated in 2019, the Council and Commission are now in phase two of a six-step process, having recently reviewed and approved a draft range of alternatives for further development through creation of technical guidance documents, frameworks/addenda, and a future amendment. The next step in the process is official Public Comment which could start as early as this month.
Now, what might sound like a light of government techno-babble to you and I, for Council and Commission members involved in the process, the various elements of this RRI could help make a point for maintaining status quo season, size, and bag limits from one year to the next, while helping establish multi-year recreational management measures rather than the current year-by-year, annual changes.
The Recreational Harvest Control Rule Framework/Addendum will be the first management action developed through the RRI, incorporating what MAFMC.org lists as a “more holistic approach that places greater emphasis on stock status indicators and trends.” In a nutshell, the overarching goal of the new reform measures is stability in recreational management (bag/size/season), flexibility in the management process, and accessibility aligned with stock status. “My goal is more sensible measures,” Nowalsky told me later, adding “Whatever way I can get there, that’s all I’m looking to accomplish.”
RRI and the Harvest Control Rule would revamp recreational specification settings and how they are impacted by recreational harvest data. “There are two elements to recreational measures every year, one is quotas that get decided typically in August that affects both the recreational and commercial fisheries, followed by specification setting for season, size and bag limits that has historically occurred in the December timeframe after most of the recreational catch comes in from the current year, and that informs what the measures will be for the following year,” Nowalsky explained.
So where commercial quota can be monitored dockside by tracking all sales in pounds of harvest fish, recreational fishermen who don’t bring their catch to any one specific offload site are in turn monitored by random surveys by way of a postcard campaign from NOAA Fisheries to determine effort, coupled with random dockside sampling to collect actual catch data. According to NOAA Fisheries, this dual survey methodology known as the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) has been vastly improved over the years.
However, MRIP is still just a random survey, which is not lost on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Academy). In a recent report to Congress, the Academy documented low levels of trust in fisheries management among recreational stakeholders in some fisheries managed with annual catch limits (ACL) and monitored by MRIP. The report cites “general lack of trust” which they said is likely based on “past experiences of poor outcomes (e.g. very short seasons); lack of affinity for federal management agencies (recreational stakeholders often profess greater affinity for state management agencies); and perceptions that federal management lacks transparency and effectiveness.”
So while NOAA Fisheries may have made improvements to the MRIP program since 2017, the Academy report specifically pointed out the ongoing challenges with in-season management of some recreational fisheries. “This study concluded that MRIP and the data collections conducted by its federal contractors and regional and state partners were not designed for the purposes of in-season management of recreational fisheries with ACLs,” while describing how adherence to the ACL mandate requires shortened recreational fishing seasons, therefore complicating data collection, monitoring, and management.
The Stability Debate
Nowalsky said the disconnect between random surveys and the fisheries management response has existed since at least 2002 when the summer flounder rebuilding plan was put in place, specifying how size, season, and bag limits would have to be set on an annual basis. “It was silent on the ‘how’ of it,” Nowalsky said, “but what came to be was that the current year’s reported recreational harvest was compared to the next year’s recreational harvest limit, and whatever the difference was would be what the call for changes in measures would be.”
In other words, if MRIP said you caught 10% more fish in year one than you were allowed to catch in year two, then managers would be forced to assume that measures have to be 10% more stringent in order to get catch back to the allowable level. This same dog chasing tail assumption was picked up in a number of other species along the way – namely sea bass, porgies, and bluefish – which places all the accountability on saltwater anglers without addressing the random nature of the MRIP surveys.
“After learning from this process for 15 to 20 years, we have learned – and managers have learned – that relying on one year of MRIP harvest is a losing proposition, and the public has been saying it for a long time,” said Nowalsky, adding “what recreational reform is at its heart is a way to go ahead and change the way that December process works for setting the specifications that are part of the fisheries management plan.”
To put it another way, a batter who starts the season with 10 hits in his first 10 at bats might end up going 0 for 10 in his final plate appearances in October; but to get a better idea of overall batting average, you really need to average out all at bats over a full 162-game season. Setting specifications using three years of MRIP data could level off the peaks and valleys to provide a better snapshot of overall recreational harvest.
While many New Jersey fluke and sea bass anglers in particular would like to see more regulatory stability from one year to the next, not everyone appears in favor of the concept. “It has been said that recreational fishermen desire the same regulations year after year. Somehow, somewhere along the line, this lie has been told enough that some believe it,” said Tony Friedrich, Vice President and Policy Director for the American Saltwater Guides Association (ASGA), an organization that appears to stand in opposition to the reform efforts.
In a recent ASGA blog entry, the group says its primary concern with elements of the RRI is that it offers a way for recreational fishermen to sidestep the Magnuson-Stevens Act requirement of ACL requirements. Friedrich added, “I have been working in fisheries for decades. Never once in my life has a fisherman come up to me and said, ‘The size and creel limits change too often. I wish they were the same every year’.”
Yet according to the Academy report to Congress, “Stability of regulations is frequently mentioned as a goal by stakeholders.” So which is it? I can tell you as managing editor of The Fisherman, I’ve personally spoken to countless saltwater anglers and business owners over the past 20 years who say they would prefer some type of regulatory stability, including multiyear regulatory options for season, size, and bag limits for fluke, much the same as it is with striped bass. And my own personal and professional observations are only further validated by others who’ve been mired in the process for many years.
Michael Waine for example, the Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director at the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), spent 6 years working as fishery management plan coordinator and fishery management specialist at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission soon after getting a Master of Science degree North Carolina State University. Based on Waine’s experience from both the Commission and ASA perspective, recreational stability just makes sense.
“This is something that we’ve heard from the recreational fishing community through the public input process that exists in the fisheries management realm and it’s something that makes logical business sense,” Waine said, calling stability in management measures “beneficial not only for the recreational anglers on the water but also the businesses that support those anglers and the pursuit of fishing.”
A Unified Approach
Working together with groups like the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) and Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), Waine and the ASA have frequently pointed out how recent MRIP improvements prompted NOAA Fisheries to recalibrate data going back to 1981, which in turn changed management’s understanding of the status of many fish stocks. Citing fluke as a prime example, the recalibration of MRIP indicated that recreational catches were higher than previously thought, resulting in NOAA Fisheries considering the stock to be at a higher than previously estimated. Yet recreational measures through Recreational Harvest Limit (RHL) on fluke remained static, even as the commercial sector saw a 62% increase in 2019 based directly on MRIP data.
“The Harvest Control Rule approach really deals with that directly,” said Waine, adding “We’ve been chasing the RHLs for a long time and that’s resulted in a lot of frustration because of the uncertainty associated with a point estimate of MRIP is high.” Through efforts by ASA, CCA, RFA, and others working through the Council and Commission, the argument is being made that other available data could be incorporated into developing management alternatives that would not violate federal law and could potentially allow for 2- to 3-year cycles of regulations for fisheries like fluke.
“One of the critiques that the managers receive from our recreational sector is that their measures are disconnected from what we’re seeing on the water,” Waine said, adding “that to me is really a major driver for incorporating a more holistic view of what the status of the resource is and what the overall performance of the fishery is, and using that information to try to craft what the recreational management measures should be for each species.”
“What other data sources can we use, and that’s where the Harvest Control Rule approach says we’ve got a stock assessment that has estimates of fishing mortality, spawning stock biomass, indices of abundance, and catch from both the recreational and commercial sectors, so the stock assessment is a much more holistic view on the status of the resource and we believe there’s utility in using that information to help evaluate the performance of the recreational fishery,” Waine added.
Some commercial sector opponents of the recreational reform effort are leery of the proposal, while RRI critics like ASGA have openly complained that “Moving forward through a framework or addendum – with very little public comment and input until the final stages of the process – is pretty disappointing in our eyes.” However, both Waine and Nowalsky credit Mike Pentony, the Regional Administrator for the NOAA Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) for helping recognize that there is a problem in need of a solution that’s worthy of public input.
“The regional administrator for GARFO has been supportive of the exploration of these alternative approaches and the overarching recreational management reform initiative,” said Waine, adding “We as an industry have worked very closely through the fisheries management process to support further exploration and development of the Recreational Reform Initiative and the Harvest Control Rule approach.”
“I remain optimistic that sometime by the end of this year we’re going to see dramatic change in how we do management,” is how Nowalsky put it.
At the end of the day, it’s an effort to find solutions to identifiable issues in recreational fisheries management. As for that “public comment” where the recreational fishing community can chime in, we expect to learn more when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council meets from December 13-15 in Annapolis, MD. Get details at MAFMC.org and watch for more news in upcoming editions of The Fisherman.