Fisheries management isn’t supposed to be robbing Peter to pay Paul

MAFMC and ASMFC Approve Changes to Commercial and Recreational Allocations of Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass ( )

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Board (Board) approved changes to the commercial and recreational allocations of summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass during a joint meeting this week in Annapolis, Maryland. These changes are intended to better reflect the current understanding of the historic proportions of catch and landings from the commercial and recreational sectors.

The current commercial and recreational allocations for all three species were set in the mid-1990s based on historical proportions of landings (for summer flounder and black sea bass) or catch (for scup) from each sector. The Council and Board developed this amendment partly in response to recent changes in how recreational catch is estimated by the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), which resulted in a revised time series of recreational data going back to the 1980s. This created a mismatch between the data that were used to set the allocations and the data currently used in management for setting catch limits. In addition, some changes have been made to commercial catch data since the allocations were established.

The amendment contained a range of allocation alternatives, with options that would maintain the current allocations and a variety of options to revise the allocations based on updated data using the same or modified “base years” (the time periods used to set the current allocations). The Council and Board ultimately voted to revise the allocations using the original base years updated with new data. This approach allows for consideration of fishery characteristics in years prior to influence by the commercial/recreational allocations, while also using the best scientific information available to understand the fisheries in those base years.

For all three species, these changes result in a shift in allocation from the commercial to the recreational sector.

Changes Expected to be Effective January 1, 2023

Landings of these three species totaled almost $28 million in 2020. The reductions in commercial landings were from 60% to 55% for summer flounder (landings $19.2 million), from 78% to 65% for scup (landings$9.3 million) and from 49% t0 45% for black sea bass (landings $9.5 million). Using the landings value for 2000 (the most recent estimates available from NOAA/NMFS) that’s a reduction in landings of the three species of about $2 million. This would represent a reduction in the landed value of three important commercial species of approximately $1 million for summer flounder, $400,000 for black sea bass and $600,000 for scup.

At the same time, using the same “scientific” rationale to disguise what seems nothing more than a blatantly political decision, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management has recommended that the red grouper fishery also be reallocated, with the recreational segment getting a large increase in quota (16%) and with that increase in quota taken out of the commercial allocation. The commercial red grouper fishery participants are now focused on convincing Gina Raimondo, President Biden’s Secretary of Commerce, to not approve the plan amendment that would allow this seemingly arbitrary reallocation. If NOAA/NMFS is allowed to continue using the new MRIP Fishing Effort Survey, every mixed use fishery from Maine through Texas should expect attempts at quota allocation shifts from the commercial to the recreational sector.

In view of this, and of what I think are really good odds that their “success” here is going to embolden some recreational fishing groups to try to get bigger hunks of other shared fisheries through “recalculating” allocations that have been acceptable for years-or in some cases for decades-I thought you might be interested in a FishNet-USA piece I wrote back in 1998.

Conflict of interest and fisheries management…..

FishNet-USA/November 7, 1998 (Available in its entirety at

During the last reauthorization of the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act a lot of attention was directed – particularly by the anti-commercial fishing interests – to commercial fishermen or others associated with the industry who had voting seats on the regional management councils. According to the arguments used then, the effectiveness of the entire system was being severely compromised by the conflicts of interests that this allowed. As an example of how “compromised” the management system actually is, 5 voting members out of a total of 21 on the Mid-Atlantic Council work for the commercial fishing industry.

However, from a commercial fishing/seafood consumer perspective, there really is a serious cause for concern about financially compromised fisheries management decision making. This revolves around the Wallop Breaux program that provides the fiscal underpinnings of every state’s fisheries research and management programs.

What is Wallop Breaux?  As explained in the House Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans’ oversight plan “Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1952 (Sport Fishing and Boating Enhancement Fund or the Wallop-Breaux Trust Fund): This fund is derived from fees, taxes, and duties imposed on (recreational) fishing equipment, (non-commercial) motorboat fuel, imported watercraft, and fishing tackle. The revenues are allocated to the States, on a formula basis, and are used to protect natural resources and enhance recreational (fishing and boating) opportunities for millions of Americans. Since its inception, more than $2 billion has been collected and allocated to the States.” In recent years this fund has provided over $350 million annually to the various State agencies responsible for managing fresh and salt water fish. Understandably these funds are dedicated to recreational boating and fishing programs and projects, on face value an example of users paying the fees and getting the government services in return. But is it really that simple? (* A breakdown by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the contributions of Wallops Breaux funds to the states in the various fisheries management regions.) 

of the allocation of Wallop Breaux funds  the FWS synopsis of the Wallop Breaux Actlink to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s synopsis of the Wallop Breaux program at the bottom of this page].

The Magnuson Act specifies that the heads of each states’ fisheries agencies, along with recreational and commercial fishing representatives, are voting members of their region’s Management Councils. As the box (below shows, they make up a significant voting block on each Council. The same officials also have one-third of the votes on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commissions. So far this seems  reasonable. They are representing the particular interests of all of their State’s citizens, including the non-fishing majority. It’s to be expected that they – and the agencies they head – do this equitably, not favoring one user group over another and objectively considering fisheries and habitat issues for the “greater” good. Without Wallop Breaux funding there would be no reason to question this.

However, the millions of Wallop Breaux dollars pumped into their agencies’ budgets every year might well call that objectivity into question. Looking again at the Mid-Atlantic, the 7 state fisheries agencies whose directors hold one third of the votes on the regional management council are collectively receiving over $20 million a year from recreational fishing and boating expenditures in their States. In the chronically underfunded fisheries research/management world this can’t be seen as anything other than a bureaucratic gold mine. (To provide a frame of reference, there aren’t a half dozen commercial fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic that produce $20 million of fish a year.)

*1. Regional Management Council. 2. Percentage of voting members who are state agency heads. 3. Wallop Breaux funds going to member states: New England/30%/$9 million, Mid-Atlantic/33%/$21 million, South Atlantic/31%/$13 million, Gulf/29%/$22 million, Pacific/29%/$21 million, North Pacific/27%/$18 million (keep in mind that this was in 1998).

Without burdening readers with another spate of bureaucratic blather, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission-black sea bass, summer flounder and scup are managed jointly by the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission-has 45 commissioners. Each state is represented on the Commission by the head of that state’s fisheries management agency, a publicly appointed member and a member of that state’s legislature.

Said most simply, the more recreational fishing that takes place in a state’s waters and offshore of them, the more money is spent by recreational fishermen in that state. And the more money that is spent by recreational fishermen in a states’ waters, the more Wallop Breaux money is turned over to that state’s fisheries management agency. And the more money that a state’s fisheries management agency has, the more employees and vehicles and gear and patrols and research it can afford. And the more employees and vehicles and on and on and on.

Any idea what state fisheries agencies get for having increased commercial fishery landings in their states? Beyond a bunch of gainfully employed people and a bigger bunch of happy and healthy consumers in their state, not much at all.

Now it’s not hard to imagine that these kinds of calculations are not floating around, either consciously or subconsciously, in the minds of the state agency personnel who vote on fisheries allocations. I know and respect enough state-level fisheries managers to feel assured that when voting on allocations most of them aren’t consciously considering what the repercussions of their vote will be on their agency’s budget or on their own personal position. But I also know enough about, and have enough experience with, bureaucracies to know that empire building plays a large part in the operations of most of them. It’s part of “the system.” That empire building can express itself in a myriad of ways, and some of those ways, while effective, aren’t necessarily obvious.

Along with and very possibly reinforcing what might well be considered “compromised” allocation decisions is the fact that Wallop Breaux funds are used by state and federal agencies-including NOAA/NMFS-to promote recreational fishing. The more recreational fishermen there are and the more recreational fishing they do, the more they spend. And the more they spend the bigger the federal pot that funds their efforts becomes.

From the  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Implementation Plan ( Part of the plan is the National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy.

“The stated goals of the policy are:

  • Support and maintain sustainable saltwater recreational fisheries resources, including healthy marine and estuarine habitats.
  • Promote saltwater recreational fishing for the social, cultural, and economic benefit of the nation.
  • Enable enduring participation in, and enjoyment of, saltwater recreational fisheries through science-based conservation and management.”

From a commercial fishing or a seafood consumer perspective it seems more like a well-engineered vicious circle than a scientifically validated government action.**

So if that’s what we have, what can we do about it? It’s fairly certain that they’re going to be continued attempts by an increasingly organized and increasingly self-centered recreational fishing sector, while claiming that its members are only interested in “conservation,” to increase their harvest or their catch and release mortality at the expense of the commercial sector and the seafood consumer.

That being the case, the pols and the public must be made aware of what an inherently compromised and recreationally biased system federal fisheries management is becoming. They need to be made aware  and what the impacts-to the domestic commercial fishing industry, to restauranteurs (who sell a major part of our domestically produced fish and seafood), and to seafood lovers in the U.S.-are going to be.

Nothing is going to change unless the people in Washington are made aware of what’s going on and that it’s in their and their constituents best interests to eliminate such an obvious source of systemic conflict.

Otherwise, it won’t be long before anyone who wants fish in the U.S. is going to have not much more than a choice between tilapia and swai! Yum, yum!

**Oxford defines as “a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect in which two or more elements intensify and aggravate each other, leading inexorably to a worsening of the situation.”

Please do not reproduce or redistribute any or all of this issue of FishNet USA without the express permission of the author. 

©Nils E. Stolpe 2021