Christmas is over, but local fishermen still didn’t get what they could really use: Better numbers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Struggling with choking catch limits and what many perceive as a federal government actively trying to put them out of business, fishermen have also run smack into a wall of maddeningly frustrating data. To sum it up very quickly: NOAA says some fish stocks are overfished. Local fishermen say otherwise, pointing out that they’re still seeing plenty of fish when they take their boats out. But NOAA is the one that sets the rules and limits how much fish can be harvested by both commercial and recreational fishermen, and the agency stubbornly insists that those rules rely on the best available science, even if best available means appallingly poor.
The black sea bass story illustrates the problem well. The Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey is one of the groups in charge of tracking fishing. In 2011, it recorded about 146,000 pounds of black sea bass caught by recreational fishermen off our state’s coast. But it also notes that its number could be too high or too low by about 44 percent, or 64,000 pounds. Trying to set any sort of policy on the status of the fish with that sort of accuracy is a problematic task, to say the very least.
Limits were put on the catch after the species was declared overfished. After a year of protests and back and forth, a new stock assessment declared late this year that the species was not in fact overfished after all, something that fishing boat captains had been saying all along. The catch limit was raised accordingly. But there’s still no relief for fishermen, as Tom Swatzel, a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, explained:
“Because NOAA does a poor job of tracking both the commercial and recreational catch, the [annual catch limits] were substantially exceeded for a number of years,” Swatzel said. “So by law those overages are being subtracted from the new annual catch limit.”
So there will fortunately be a higher limit, but because the previous one – based on dubious science – was exceeded, the new one will be almost as severe. This sort of bureaucratic tail-chasing is nonsense. The NOAA has made one of its five main goals for the coming years an improvement in catch and stock assessments. It’s a welcome move, but long overdue. Jobs and livelihoods hang in the balance. Speed it up.