Thursday, April 1, 2010

Marine Spatial Planning

By Monty Hawkins

Marine Spatial Planning has been the cause of much controversy, but inaccurate recreational catch data is the real problem and managers’ use of poor catch data is causing serious trouble in the sport fishing world.

Our Ocean Policy and Marine Spatial Planning is about ways to minimize conflict and to ensure that culturally important fishing grounds and fish habitat aren't needlessly lost as we press on with new energy for our nation. Ocean Policy, including Marine Spatial Planning, isn't about taking away fishing areas; it’s about preserving them as the US moves into a new era of energy development.

As a party boat operator in Ocean City with 30 years experience, I am fighting for my business' very existence because of recreational catch-estimate data rotten enough to make a menhaden processing plant blush.

As fishery rebuilding plans have advanced – often with great success – the effects of less than perfect marine science and data's complex illusions are creating havoc as we close in on some species' restoration. For example, in September and October 2007 shore fishers targeting flounder in Maryland are officially estimated to have caught what state party and charter boats will catch in 15 years.

We are often falsely accused of going over-quota and have repeatedly fought the data and lost. We lost because we could not prove guys fishing on the bank weren't catching like an Alaskan factory trawler; lost because 36,017 flounder from shore in two months seemed to regulators a reasonable number even if Maryland's professional crews caught well under 3,000 in a year; lost because although the data is astonishingly poor it is considered the “best science available”, is inarguable and must be used. We suffer shortened seasons, emergency closures, size limit increases and creel limit reductions because of statistical analysis that, literally, couldn't survive the light of day.

This bad data is building and is getting worse. Marine Spatial Planning is not the problem nor will it be. Fishermen would be foolish to allow big-energy in without some manner of safety-net. America does need to move forward with energy policy. Fishers need to look ahead as well.

Windmills will actually contribute to marine production and will create reef communities. However, as the Chesapeake's fishers learned with the closing of the gas-docks by Homeland Security, sometimes what's good for fish doesn't remain good for fishermen.

I'm proud to tell you Maryland's coastal anglers did not wait for the government. We had self imposed regulations on many species long before management--sometimes half a decade before regulations. We have privately funded much of our reef restoration and creation. We are staunch conservationists whose businesses are being destroyed by bad catch data, poor stock assessments and a general lack of flexibility. Even the skippers fishing after WWII never had ocean flounder fishing as we now do. We are still rebuilding' the summer flounder population though.

The challenges of rebuilding, fishing on rebuilt stocks, and finding those species left behind are not insurmountable, but bureaucratic rigidity is making it mighty difficult. All those fishermen, commercial and recreational, who recently rallied in DC, were there for the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act.

Fishers need managers that can manage as we navigate and follow a compass course yes, but dodge a new sand-bar. Held rigidly to data sets of ill-found science, this math that would have made Madoff's staff envious, our regulators are running us hard-aground.

There's no flexibility in the Great Recession. It’s destroying the fishers. What fishermen need now is truth and wisdom. Truth in stock assessments, truth in catch estimates, truth in news reporting and wisdom in our governance. Strikes me we could use some of that near everywhere.

Monty Hawkins is Captain of the Morning Star Party Boat in Ocean City. He also writes a regular fishing report. He can be reached at

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