Capt Joe Paradiso
November 14, 2011

Because of obsolete NOAA harvest statistics and questionable assessment data, fluke fishermen will take another hit in 2012 – in turn, coastal fishermen are planning to hit back at Washington DC sometime later this winter!

A Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) report indicates that while the fluke stock was successfully rebuilt in 2010, angler harvest data compiled through the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (MRFSS) and applied to NOAA assessment models is predicting that the fishing mortality rate will be exceeded in 2011, once again causing statutory overfishing to occur.  In addition to known flaws with the MRFSS data, independent scientists have also been critical of the assessment models used by the federal fisheries service. 

Citing the latest findings, the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) warns that harvest limits originally recommended by council members for 2012 are actually too high and may need to be reduced.  On top of recent reports from the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regional fishery management councils that sea bass and red snapper fisheries have also been closed to anglers due to flawed data, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) said they are moving forward with another rally in Washington DC later this winter like the one held during the winter of 2010.

“In conducting ongoing stock assessments, NOAA Fisheries is using recreational harvest data deemed fatally flawed and woefully inaccurate by the National Academy of Sciences, which is exactly why Congress told them to stop using MRFSS as of 2009,” said Jim Donofrio, RFA’s executive director.  “Annual or semi-annual stock assessments don’t mean anything when you’re using illicit data, and if Congress doesn’t want to come to us to get this fixed then we have no choice but to go back to them this winter.” 

“Five years is long enough to wait for Congress to react,” he added.  

Reauthorized in 2006 by unanimous consent with support from ‘green’ groups like Pew Charitable Trusts and their Pew-funded affiliates including Marine Fish Conservation Network and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Magnuson Stevens Act calls for rigid rebuilding deadlines while incorporating annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures like catch shares to help ratchet down regulatory controls on fishermen. 

“RFA has taken our lumps by some of our industry friends because we’ve been so openly vocal about Magnuson reform, rallying for more accountability out of our federal government, but who can sit back quietly while this injustice continues,” Donofrio asked. 

In September, Donofrio appeared before a House Resource Committee hearing on behalf of America’s coastal anglers, and specifically brought up the issue of NOAA’s inattention to meeting requirements set forth by Congress back in 2006. “We don’t have a data collection program that congress mandated in the 2007 reauthorization for marine recreational statistics, the new MRIP program, they’re still using the MRFSS data and they’re shutting down fisheries based on the MRFSS data,” Donofrio told committee members in his official testimony, adding “yet in a lawsuit that we filed against NOAA and lost, NOAA lied to the judge.” 

“They told the judge we’re not using MRFSS data anymore, that’s what they told the judge. So they lied to the judge, yet they’re keeping us at the dock based on MRFSS data,” he said. 

Two years ago, the RFA brought a federal lawsuit against NOAA fisheries for closing the Mid Atlantic black sea bass fishery using data compiled through the MRFSS survey.  After protracted legal wrangling, a federal judge finally found the lawsuit moot because the black sea bass fishery was reopened; the judge also found reason to rule against RFA’s claim because of NOAA testimony that they were no longer using MRFSS data.  A similar lawsuit was also filed in Tallahassee, FL in an attempt to reopen the snapper fishery. 

“NOAA’s legal team essentially showed a copy of the Magnuson reauthorization of 2007 showing where Congress mandated that MRFSS be replaced as of January 1, 2009,” Donofrio said today following the official MAFMC announcement of impending fluke reductions.  “While NOAA has yet to meet their congressional obligation three seasons later, our recreational fishing community however is being forced to adhere to a broken law enforced by an overzealous and contentious police force.” 

Donofrio told House Resource Committee members that coastal businesses are having a terrible time staying open in a down economy as it is, but when combined with burdensome regulations, particularly when they’re based on hopelessly flawed harvest data, it’s forced many recreational fishing professionals out of the business in recent months. 

 “They’re disgusted with federal regulations that are not allowing them to fish on rebuilt stocks and NOAA’s not doing a thing about it, what they want to do is add more layers of bureaucracy that costs more money when they’re not spending the money to keep us fishing,” Donofrio said. 

In response to a question from Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ) Donofrio said the issues experienced by the fishing fleet in the congressman’s home district along the Central New Jersey coast were the same as being experienced down in the southeastern United States and up inside the Gulf, “all the way down to Mr. (Steve) Southerland’s district,” he added, referencing Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) who also took NOAA to task at the recent House Resource Committee hearing. 

“We have people sitting at the dock can’t catch red snapper because the stock assessments and the data that NOAA’s been using is flawed, we’re literally tripping over red snapper, tripping over them” Donofrio said, adding “you can’t go anywhere off the coast of Florida without limiting out.”

Since 2007, RFA along with key New York coastal advocates including the New York Sportfishing Federation, United Boatmen and New York Fishing Tackle Trades Association have vocally pressed forth with support for legislation to reform the Magnuson Stevens Act to rewrite the fouled language which has allowed NOAA to shirk its responsibilities while punishing coastal fishing communities, but said it’s been an uphill battle because of congressional gridlock and an industry divided. 

“Regrettably, the fishing industry’s own trade association spearheaded lobbying efforts to keep the status quo in place on a flawed piece of federal law, to the detriment of the individual anglers of New York,” said Jim Hutchinson, Jr., president of the New York Sportfishing Federation and RFA managing director.  “I’m sorry to say that RFA was right all along, and those groups who have spent the past 4-1/2 years trying to convince legislators that Magnuson was just fine as reauthorized have simply provided the fisheries service cover to enact more draconian restrictions year after year.”

According to MAFMC chairman Rick Robins, part of the problem with summer flounder is the fact that NOAA Fisheries is taking important scientific funding away from his council and shifting the spending up north.  “The current situation is an unfortunate consequence resulting from the redirection of Science Center resources to New England groundfish,” Robins said.

“NOAA Fisheries created this problem by diverting assessments to New England groundfish in order to create their catch shares program, involving a huge giveaway of public fishery resources,” said Al Ristori recently in The Fisherman Magazine.  “This program will soon be enriching a relatively few large scale commercial fisheries while negatively impacting independent commercial fishermen plus the recreational fishing public and industry.”  Ristori said millions of dollars in taxpayer funds are being used to fund NOAA’s catch share scheme, noting that “the summer flounder mess is just the first of the problems we’re likely to experience from that ill-conceived program.”

The Council is scheduling meetings of the Scientific and Statistical Committee and Monitoring Committee to review the new information on summer flounder and provide recommendations at the December Council meeting.  Independent scientists like Brian Rothchild and Mark Maunder have challenged reference points and natural mortality rates used by NOAA scientists in their summer flounder assessments models, but without a new benchmark assessment for peer review there’s no way for individual anglers and independent scientists to challenge the data. 

“There are scientists in the field who have critical data with regard to summer flounder to challenge the government’s unreasonable findings, but the only way to shake some sense into this government bureaucracy is through an act of Congress,” Donofrio said. 

(To help reduce future fishing closures, call your Representative to Congress and ask him/her to support HR3061, the Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011 , presently co-sponsored by Rep. Peter King of Long Island).