SFA-ECFS has an Important Role in Fishery Stock Assessments: Summary of SEDAR 38 GOM & Atlantic King Mackerel
The Southeastern Fisheries Association-East Coast Fisheries Section has contributed to and challenged the scientific underpinnings of the NMFS’ Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico King mackerel stock assessment, and has won a battle in “the search for the truth” for all commercial and recreational fishermen- from North Carolina to Texas. SFA-ECFS fishermen demanded, in June 2012, that the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) should not initiate Emergency rule-making, a management action that would potentially close the Atlantic King mackerel fishery; but instead, wait until scientific review determined the status of the fishery stock in SEDAR 38. We demanded that the SAFMC put science in front of political expediency and fear of threats from lawyers representing well-funded environmental groups. It was clear, by 2012, that the Atlantic King Mackerel stock was at a low point in annual landings rate; but the fishery is known to oscillate in 7 to 10-year cycles, irrespective of fishing pressure. The NMFS mistakenly confused the natural oscillations in these prodigious mackerel populations with up front bias that fishing removals are the primary driver in the recent decline in abundance of these fish stocks. Alternatively, coastal mackerel fisheries are widely recognized to be more closely coupled to the productivity, environmental conditions and health of coastal ecosystems versus systematic “stock depletion hypotheses” that are the basis for present day NMFS simulation modeling.
NOAA- Fisheries (NMFS) has been put on notice that these conventional “stock depletion hypothesis” models, which assume steady-state environmental conditions, don’t work in coastal ecosystems dominated by either natural environmental variability or the heavy hand of human-driven coastal alteration, from the scale of coastal water quality and habitat decline to regional and global climate change. Fishermen know that King mackerel have distinct temperature and water quality preferences; and their prey species, likewise, have distinct environmental thresholds. For example, along the east coast of Florida, younger king mackerel migrate into and out of their over-wintering habitat, primarily, in response to seasonal temperature patterns. In North Carolina, the historically important prey for King Mackerel, the Atlantic croaker, is a “poster child” for a well-documented change in historical distribution pattern, resulting from changes in habitat quality and, now, climate change. In summary, the historical “natural” patterns that made the dynamic of this fishery, predictable, do not exist anymore; fishermen were the first to know this, and the scientific community is behind in this understanding. Hence, NMFS must quickly evolve toward the use of “ecosystem” models to comprehend the dynamics of this and other fisheries that are coupled closely with changes in their environment.
SFA-ECFS has invested significant financial support in “getting the science right.” For a good portion of 2013, we reviewed and re-defined the science supporting the “winter mixing zone,” off of east Florida, and these analyses were accepted by both academic and NMFS scientists in SEDAR 38. These findings led to the redefinition of the Atlantic stock and movement of the scientific definition to include the fishery stock along the east coast of FL south to the Miami-Dade/ Monroe Co. line, a definition consistent with the Spanish mackerel stock definition. Because the Atlantic stock now includes the high CPUE’s and landings from the mixing zone, the SEDAR 38 Review Workshop expert panel agreed that both the Gulf and Atlantic stocks are not overfished, and are not undergoing overfishing. In the SEDAR 38 process, NMFS stock assessment analysts had characterized the Atlantic stock as “crashing,” and later, not having enough new recruitment to sustain the spawning stock biomass. SFA-ECFS fought those characterizations with defensible data and has shown, with agreement by the SEDAR 38 expert Review Panel, that the NMFS models did not agree with empirical data from the fisheries. Specifically, at the end of the Assessment Workshop webinars, we refuted NMFS assertions of models indicating low Atlantic stock recruitment rates, and backed it up with real empirical data- indicating a significant April 2014 showing of small age-2 & 3 King mackerel recruiting into the fishery. Several SFA-ECFS fishermen also produced written comments on their observations and landings of small age-class fish, and new recruitment of small age-classes into the Atlantic stock fishery. As a result, the SEDAR 38 Review Panel determined that the NMFS’ Atlantic stock “spawner-recruitment” relationship was not credible, and has proposed a stock status benchmark that is primarily based upon the abundant biomass of spawning stock. For the Gulf stock, NMFS analyst, Mike Schirripa, conceded, “The model is too imprecise to say that we should change anything.”
In summary, the SFA-ECFS has represented all commercial and recreational fishing interests in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico by making sure that: 1) the NMFS King mackerel stock assessment was based upon the best available science, and 2) data poor and bad theoretical assumptions were not allowed to mischaracterize the health and stock status of these King mackerel fishery stocks. SFA-ECFS encourages your support as we move forward “in the search for the truth” in the characterization of the stock status of southeastern United States fisheries. These fisheries put high quality food in markets, restaurants, and on your dinner table, and provide jobs for commercial and recreational interests which supports the economy of our region.