Friday, February 26, 2010

Fish and fishermen: sustainable species?

Charter captains, bait shops and commercial fishing fleets from Key West to Puget Sound are losing jobs and money as sweeping restrictions on dozens of fish take effect nationwide, based on data that regulators know is inaccurate.For Walt's Fish Market in Sarasota, the closures mean the business will be forced to pay higher prices for grouper, a popular fish that local consumers demand. Regulators say they need to overhaul the science behind their decision-making, which relies partly on numbers collected through random phone calls to coastal homes. But they must err on the side of caution under 2007 laws setting a deadline for ending overfishing in the U.S. by Jan. 1, 2010.Thousands of recreational and commercial fishermen plan to protest outside the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday to push for lesser regulations until the science improves.The tougher regulations stem from rising concerns over the health of fish populations globally and the desire to manage fishing sustainably in the U.S."The good thing about sustainable fisheries is the fish should be easy to catch," said Steve Murawski, chief science adviser for NOAA fisheries. "The fishing should be excellent and people should not be using the opportunity to take what they can get, but taking what's appropriate."Science has lagged behind policy-making. Efforts to improve fisheries data began this year, four years after the National Academy of Sciences recommended a complete redesign and three decades after a key component of the current information-gathering system was devised."It's taking time to go from one system to the next and we're in transition," Murawski said. "We can't not regulate fisheries while we are trying to go through that transition."If the science overstates the problem, that is good for the fish, he said. If estimates are correct, or the situation is worse, lack of action could do significant long-term harm."If we're uncertain about the status, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the fish," Murawski said.But fishermen contend that the fish they are after -- grouper, red snapper, flounder and others -- are neither in danger of extinction nor at risk of a population collapse. They contend lives are being ruined on faulty assumptions."The best thing for the fishery is not just to slam it shut just because you don't know what's going on out there," said David Heil, a recreational fisherman from Winter Park who also serves as an attorney for the Recreational Fishing Alliance. "They're making some regulations that really are draconian in nature."The closures are putting charter captains, commercial fishermen, bait and tackle shops, boat repair shops and others out of business, Heil said.The effect is widespread throughout the east coast and more pronounced in Florida, where 40 percent of all recreational fishing nationwide takes place."The economy is in such a critical state to be making regulations based on flawed data, and regulations that affect the incomes of people that are already in a struggling economy, is wrong," said Al Rodriguez, tackle and bait specialist at Economy Tackle in Sarasota.A broad impactFor Walt's Fish Market in Sarasota, the closures mean higher prices for grouper, which the business will absorb, and reliance on other fish species.We have so many other great fish here," said Chip White, the market's general manager, listing mahi mahi and four kinds of snapper other than red snapper. The market demands grouper, however, and White will have to buy it from fishermen other than those who usually supply him. That is why he will have to pay a higher price.Similarly, restaurants here are importing grouper from Mexico or not offering it. At the Crab and Fin on St. Armands Circle, the menu lists cobia, Spanish mackeral and yellow-eyed snapper."Grouper and red snapper we're staying away from because of the ban," said Scott Mcdonald, restaurant manager. "There's so much demand for grouper and there's only so many legitimate sources for it."Despite recreational closures in the Gulf, commercial fishermen here can still catch grouper and red snapper, unlike on the state's east coast.The clamp-down stems from the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. In addition to setting the deadline to end overfishing nationwide, the act required an overhaul of the way the fisheries service calculates fish populations, an expensive, time-consuming task.The fisheries service was recently given $5 million and a staffing boost of about 15 people to help fix the problems, Murawski said.But flaws have been known for at least a decade. The National Research Council brought attention to the problems in 2000.The National Academy of Sciences' follow-up in 2006 criticized recreational surveys, which were conducted in the field and over the phone.Until this year, surveyors estimated the catch by randomly calling households in coastal counties trying to contact recreational anglers. Anglers' catch reports were entered as scientific data, even if their last trip had been months prior.In the field, surveyors also visited piers and docks to interview anglers. No guidelines informed surveyors on how to collect data randomly. Instead, they tended to interview only those fishermen who had made landings, resulting in overestimates.Other variables, such as weather's effect on reducing catch, were not included, resulting in widely variable catch estimates from year to year.The surveys were developed in 1979 to gather basic information on recreational fishing, not to assess fish populations, according to the National Academy of Sciences.The recreational data are combined with more accurate commercial data and other information to determine the health of fish populations and to set commercial and recreational fishing restrictions.The information is imprecise, Murawski acknowledged, but still reflects fish population trends.Slow progressNew survey guidelines took effect this year. Driving many of the improvements was a recent national law requiring all anglers to register for a license. The license -- free in some states -- allows surveyors to call known anglers, not random households.Ocean conservation groups credit the fisheries service for improvements, but they, too, say it has been disappointingly slow.Chris Dorsett, director of fisheries conservation and management for Ocean Conservancy, said the biggest problems are the service's poor estimates on how many fish are caught and released dead, especially in the commercial sector.The fisheries service also needs to speed up recreational catch estimates to stop overharvests or to loosen unnecessary restrictions.Holly Binns, manager for the Pew Environment Group's campaign to end overfishing in the Southeast, said the key is not to "weaken protections that are in place right now."A lot of species are showing signs of recovery. We need more time to see it."

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