Another One Bites the Dust?

The NEFMC approved a high-risk 400 metric ton harvest level for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder. Photo Credit: NOAA

I had trouble shaking Queen’s anthem tune from my head during the groundfish session at the New England Fisheries Management Council meeting in Hyannis this week: “And another one gone and another one gone/Another one bites the dust.” Fish and fishermen—other ones keep biting the dust.

This time around, it is Georges Bank yellowtail flounder. GB yellowtail was once one of the major species sustaining the New Bedford fleet. Catches in the late 1960s were in the 21,000 metric ton range (46,297,000 odd pounds of flounder). Catches in 2012 were restricted to 722 metric tons (1,592,000 odd pounds). Since this species crosses the international boundary on Georges Bank, this catch is shared with Canadian fishermen.

The science assessment on this fish is also conducted jointly by the US and Canada. Each country approaches their assessments slightly differently, and sometimes the groups come to different conclusions on shared stocks. The uniformity of their dismal projections is therefore particularly compelling.

Looking at the adjusted model projections recommended by the international science panel, the current size of the breeding population on Georges Bank was estimated to be 869 metric tons, down from 10,900 metric tons a decade before. Fishing mortality was estimated to be three times what the target fishing mortality, which most observers think may already be twice as high as the fishing mortality level that would allow the stock to start to rebuild with any confidence.

The number of age-1 fish, i.e. those that were surviving in the wild to enter the fishery, was only 1.2 million fish, down from an estimated 10.6 million a decade ago. This is called recruitment failure and is a terrible omen for the future. Now there appear to be no small yellowtail and no large yellowtail in the Georges Bank fishery.

Caution should have led managers to consider closing this fishery and closing the areas supporting the remnant yellowtail breeding populations. That apparently was not even on the table. Instead, the US/Canada management group that was tasked with reaching agreement on a harvest level for 2014 agreed to a 400 metric ton limit, even though that harvest level was projected to have a 100% probability for exceeding the target fishing rate and only a 66% chance of even increasing the biomass by 10%.  US fishermen were allowed 328 metric tons of this harvest, up from a 215 metric ton allocation in 2013. A 400 metric ton harvest level seems irresponsible based on the current scientific knowledge.

When management actions implementing this agreement came before the Council this week, it was already clear that US fishermen wanted even more than the 50% quota increase they were being given. The Council groundfish committee brought forward a 425 metric ton harvest recommendation. A 425 metric ton harvest was estimated to provide only a 50% chance of any increase in the collapsed yellowtail populations.

Massachusetts official representative David Pierce even indicated at the Council meeting that he would support a 450 metric ton harvest level even though NMFS had already indicated that 400 metric tons was the highest number it believed to meet the minimum legal requirements.

Notably, only one state government representative, Connecticut fishery director Mark Alexander, spoke out in recognition of the yellowtail crisis, arguing that the Council should be focused on reducing catch as much as possible, not fighting for higher harvests. There was virtually no talk by Council members about implementing the science committee’s recommendation that yellowtail harvest be reduced as much as practicable. The high-risk 400 metric ton limit passed easily. “Shameful” is a word that comes to my mind.

Maybe there are more fish out there than the models indicate. Maybe seals are eating everything, as some suggested at the mike. Maybe the Council’s almost addictive attachment to risk taking will pay off some day. Perhaps the New England Council’s theme song should be “Maybe, maybe, maybe.”

Quite apart from the ecological imperative of restoring a yellowtail population to Georges Bank from an ecological perspective, yellowtail is an unavoidable bycatch in the sea scallop and haddock fisheries, the only fishery bright stars out on Georges Bank these days. If the yellowtail population continues its collapse, large closed areas will likely be the only remedial actions that will be available to managers under the law. The social and economic costs associated with that course of action will evaporate the harvest benefits of 400 metric tons of yellowtail flounder.

In Queen’s words, “there are plenty of ways you can hurt a man/ And bring him to the ground.” The Council’s failure to focus on the potential long term collapse of yellowtail flounder, even as a contingency, may bring many to the ground.


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