Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 11:25 am | Fog/Mist 67º

 
 
 
 

Captain’s Log: Abundance vs. Availability of Marine Life

Calico bass (a.k.a. kelp bass) is a species for which we are working on improving abundance though good fisheries management. At times, their availability in our kelp beds can be wonderfully exciting.
Calico bass (a.k.a. kelp bass) is a species for which we are working on improving abundance though good fisheries management. At times, their availability in our kelp beds can be wonderfully exciting. (Capt. David Bacon / Noozhawk photo)

The science of fisheries management has a brain-burning quagmire, and as luck would have it, the issue is of such extreme importance that if fisheries scientists and managers don’t get it right, their work is pretty much all wrong. I don’t envy them this part of their heads-down, information-crunching work. The issue is the difference between availability and abundance of fishes or any other critters.

As anglers and citizens, we need a working understanding of the issue and know enough about it that we don’t make demands on our fisheries managers that go against what is best — but not always obvious — for our fisheries.

On the surface, it seems simple enough. Availability has to do with how easy they are to catch at any given time and place. Abundance has to do with how many of these fish really exist. Ahhh! But when circumstances make one seem easy, the other can still be perplexing.

To help get good, understandable words and perspective from an immensely experienced professional, I went to talk with Mick Kronman, harbor operations manager at the Santa Barbara Harbor. Mick (make that Capt. Mick) was a commercial fisherman for many years. He skippered open party sportboats for more years. He served as writer and editor for various publications, and he now helps manage the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Mick wrote a book, which I have and highly recommend reading. It is From Hooks to Harpoons: The Story of Santa Barbara Channel Fisheries, ISBN#978-0-615-89704-2, published by the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. To order copies, email [email protected].

I asked Mick for his version of something like a Webster condensed explanation of the potential misunderstanding between availability and abundance. His answer was long but helpful.

“One cornerstone of sound fisheries management is understanding the difference between abundance and availability," he says. "Abundance is a primary product of stock assessments, which are directed and undertaken by government agencies like NOAA. Understanding how many of a certain species are swimming in the sea, plus the rate at which they’re reproducing, dying of natural causes, being eaten by other creatures or taken by fishermen — for a few examples — is critical to maintaining sustainable fisheries, both recreational and commercial. Availability, however, is an entirely different matter. Boiled down, it means, ‘When I went fishing at a certain time, place and under certain ocean conditions, did I catch them?’ It is very easy to confuse abundance with availability, and such confusion can cause everything from incorrect public perception to poor public policy. Just because you catch them today, doesn’t mean they’re abundant [editor’s note: Something anglers sometimes get wrong], and just because you don’t catch them tomorrow doesn’t mean they’re not abundant [editor’s note: Something our extreme enviro preservationist friends sometimes get wrong, which leads to economically-damaging MPAs].

"Stock assessments and gauging abundance are difficult. Assessing availability is equally tough — in some part due to the mystery of the sea. Fish have fins and they travel. Where and why is sometimes known, sometimes not. Consider the potential heretical notion, for example, that sardines were not 'fished out' (a crude term related to abundance) of Monterey Bay. Maybe they just moved — a function of availability. The latter notion is not only plausible, but has solid traction with many marine scientists. The key is to keep and maintain an open, critical mind to the abundance/availability concept.”

I asked Mick how important a part of fisheries management this is and how fisheries managers apply this concept to their work. He said, “Managers, of all people, need to be in tune with this duality. After all, it’s their responsibility to conserve fisheries and at the same time make recreation and seafood accessible to the public.”

I had another tough question for Mick. I asked him, “When a boatload of anglers get into a wide-open bite, how do they know if they are experiencing abundance or happenstance availability?” Mick seemed amused and said, “They don’t. And that’s fine. They’re not scientists or managers. Educating them, however, about the difference between abundance and availability will help soften the blow when, on their next trip out, the fish are nowhere to be found.”

In his book, Mick tells the story of a commercial fisherman who caught a huge haul of a certain species of rockfish. He went to the fisheries managers to tell them that there are so many of this species that they should increase the allowable harvest. They told him that actually they were thinking of lowering the allowable harvest, and that while he had found the fish to be available at that time and place, the reality is that they were not at all abundant. It can be a tough lesson.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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