Chalk this up as yet another example of me missing the boat on something I should really be posting. Earlier, I posted on the recent dramatic increase in the spiny dogfish quota, then the closure of the fishery in North Carolina a mere three months later. It turns out that NMFS quietly closed the entire Atlantic dogfish fishery four days later. Distracted by Science Online and general grad school tomfoolery, I totally missed it. Thankfully Shark Year Magazine was on it, picking up my slack.
After a concerted effort by commercial fishermen to raise the dogfish quota, it was fished out in three months. The closure comes before the time of peak dogfish abundance in Virginia and North Carolina waters, and well short of the end of the season (the dogfish fishery runs from April-May). The closure of this fishery is noteworthy for a couple reasons.
Spiny dogfish are a contentious fishery to manage. The slow growth and late maturity of female dogfish makes it easy to fish out adults of this species before they ever have a chance to reproduce, and this is compounded by the fact that females are the largest individuals and therefore the most valuable to fishermen. However, the sheer unpopularity of spiny dogfish among fishermen means that the motivation for fishing the species is often not commerce, but pest control. It’s tough to sell dogfish conservation to commercial fishermen. The quick closure of the Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery is likely due to one of two possibilities, which lie on the extremes of the debate:
1 – The conservationists are right: the increased quota was too much, too soon and the dogfish population has not recovered to a level that can sustain that much fishing.
2 – The fishermen are right: even the increased quota is too low to allow fishermen to make dogfish fishing worth their while, and the quick closure shows how much managers have underestimated the stock.
Whichever way the cause for the fishery closure swings, something obviously went wrong in the management process. Fishermen are already irate at news from NOAA/NMFS delivering a nasty surprise for the Atlantic cod fishery, and their credibility may be in question here too. The huge amount of uncertainty inherent in fisheries science does create situations that shock managers and fishermen alike. However, quotas are set by the regional fishery management councils, and are subject to the influence of politics as much as science. Fishermen have seats on these councils (as they should), so quotas are usually the result of negotiation between scientists and the needs of the industry. Imperfect science, a compromised quota, or a little of both lead to this situation.
Another angle on this story is the fact that the Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery is still under sustainability assessment by the Marine Stewardship Council (a story I’ve been following for a little while). This puts the MSC in a tough position: if they classify the fishery as sustainable after such a quick closure, it throws their whole selection process into doubt. Like NMFS, the MSC has had its share of controversy.
Of course all of these issues are ultimate the result of trying to count and eat a resource we can’t even see 90% of the time. Hey, if fisheries management was easy, everyone would be doing it.