Friday’s editorial takes aim at the incomplete, imprecise information that goes into determining fishing limits and closures off our coast:
Take a good look at the ocean the next time you visit the beach. About how many fish do you think are there out there? Your guess may be almost as good as anyone else’s these days.
As word came down that the black sea bass season would end for recreational fishing boats this past Saturday – months earlier than usual – charter boat captains protested loudly that the closure made no sense. Put down a hook anywhere off the coast of the Carolinas and you’ll pull up a couple of bass before it even hits the bottom, they say.
“Our fisheries are actually the best they’ve been in a long time,” Captain Keith Logan of Feeding Frenzy Charters in Holden Beach, N.C., said on Wednesday.
Unfortunately for the charter boat captains, there’s little to prove that assertion beyond their word. According to federal law, enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service, once a fish stock has been determined to be overfished and depleted, overfishing must stop in the region within a year. How does the service determine whether a species has been overfished? The NMFS, in coordination with the regional South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, relies on what the law simply calls the “best available” science.
And as Tom Swatzel of the fishery council said, “the best available science is not real good. I think everybody would agree it’s a guesstimate at best.”
In fact, the data is so skimpy that nobody’s quite sure just how overfished – or underfished – the stock might be. But the law’s the law, and until the data improves, those in charge of enforcing the law make do with what they can.
Roy Crabtree, the regional NMFS administrator, told the Charleston Post and Courier in January, “I understand the desire to have better data, and that is under way. But at least right now, I have to use the numbers I have to make the decision.”
The problem is evident both in determining how many fish are swimming off our coast and how many are harvested. For example, the red snapper fishery underwent similar restrictions last year, which were modified after an ad hoc survey showed there were more fish out there than the government had thought. And the government’s harvest numbers, based heavily on telephone surveys of fishermen, have ludicrously low precision rates. Off the S.C. coast, for instance, the harvest survey estimated that recreational fishermen brought in about 71,000 pounds of black sea bass in 2010, but the survey notes that the real number could be about 30 percent higher or lower. In other words, there’s a strong chance that at least one of the numbers the NMFS uses in setting limits is off by tens of thousands of pounds.
In the short term, a survey similar to the one done for red snapper could provide some clarity on the black sea bass population, but in the long term, it seems clear that better data collection methods are urgently needed.
In fact, while the fishing industry and environmental groups don’t always see eye to eye, this lack of clear information is something both groups agree needs to be fixed and fixed sooner rather than later. “Everyone would like to see better data,” said Eileen Dougherty, senior conservation manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. “I certainly don’t want to be here and be participating in the same conversation that we’re having now 10 years from now.”
Meanwhile, the black sea bass in the ocean will remain off limits through the end of this season. For charter boat Captain Keith Logan, the species comprised the majority of his customers’ catch in April and May. This year? He’s not quite sure yet, but he may try to schedule more inshore trips or shark fishing trips. We wish we could say there’s a good reason the government took away his regular business, but we’re only about 30 percent sure.