Thursday, October 27, 2016


The Center for Coastal Conservation is again trying to sell policymakers of the superior virtues of state fisheries management, and again trying to use striped bass as a good example.  In its recently-issued report, A Vision for Marine Fisheries Management in the 21st Century, Priorities for a New Administration, it claims that

“States are the experts at managing—very successfully—numerous fish species such as red drum, spotted sea trout, and striped bass.”
The Center is based down in Louisiana, far from the striper coast, and maybe if you look at striped bass management through swampwater-blurred eyes, it looks pretty good.  But to those of us who actually live close to the northern ocean, who remember what it used to be like, when stripers chased herring into the wash beneath a late November moon, the current state of the striped bass stock, and of striped bass management, doesn’t look that good at all.

We saw another example of how it fell short last Monday, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took the first steps toward increasing the striped bass kill, even though the spawning stock biomass remains a long way below its rebuilding target.

Like most efforts to hinder striped bass conservation over the past couple of years, this week’s effort was spearheaded by Maryland, which fought hard, if unsuccessfully, to derail the harvest reductions mandated by Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan two years ago.

Although Maryland, and the other Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, weren’t able to prevent ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board from adopting Addendum IV, they did manage to convince the Management Board to grant them one concession:  Instead of reducing landings in 2015 and beyond by 25%, compared to landings in 2013, Maryland and its Chesapeake neighbors would only be required to reduce landings by 20.5%, compared to a different base year, 2012.

Instead of being happy that they were granted a break not afforded to states on the coast, Maryland began whining a year ago about the “crisis” the cuts had caused, and how their fishermen were “suffering” as a result.  

Instead of staying the course until a new benchmark stock assessment could be released in 2018, less than one year into the new management regime, Maryland’s representatives on the Management Board were already fighting for a bigger kill.

Of course, when the final numbers came in, it turned out that far from “suffering” from a landings reduction, Maryland’s recreational fishermen had actually increased their harvest by more than 50%, compared to their 2012 landings.

That might have embarrassed some Management Board members into silence, but Michael Luisi of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources seemed to feel no shame.

Instead, he pointed out that Amendment IV apparently did its work slightly too well, and that fishing mortality for 2015 was estimated to be 0.16, a bit lower than the 0.18 mortality target.  

Apparently believing that it was his duty to increase his state’s kill as much as possible, and minimize the number of immature bass that might survive and possibly help to rebuild the spawning stock, Mr. Luisi made a motion

“to task the Striped Bass Technical Committee to 1) determine the percent liberalization of harvest that would increase fishing mortality (F) from the 2015 terminal year estimate of 0.16 to the [Fishery Management Plan] target of 0.18…”
That motion was remarkable on a number of levels.

The first was the thin justification for making the motion at all.  The difference between the 2015 fishing mortality rate of 0.16 and the target rate of 0.18 is surpassingly small—so small that the two rates aren’t really significantly different; there is always some error inherent in such estimates, and that inherent error could easily be large enough that the actual, rather than the estimated, 2015 fishing mortality was 0.18, if not a bit more (although it could also have been somewhat lower).

Then there is the question of whether regulations ought to be changed every time actual landings diverge from the target.  Try as they might, managers aren’t perfect.  It is almost certain that, despite all of their efforts, the actual fishing mortality rate in any given year will be a little higher or a little lower than the target figure.

But, of course, it’s safe to say that Maryland wouldn’t have made a motion to determine how much to reduce harvest if the 2015 mortality estimate had been 0.20, a bit higher than the target level.  In fact, if we can go back a few years, we can find instances where some members of the Management Board had wanted to reduce harvest due to a clear drop in striped bass abundance, but never got very far.

For example, a 2011 stock assessment update noted that abundance had fallen from 67.5 million fish in 2004 to 42.3 million fish in 2010, and stated that

“Forecasts of age 8+ abundance from 2010 to 2017 and spawning stock biomass from 2011 to 2013 at status quo F (0.23) and selectivity show an increase in abundance through 2011, but a subsequent decline in abundance through 2017.  Spawning stock biomass will increase slightly in 2011, but decline through 2013.”
After that information, which accurately predicted the state of today’s stock, was presented at the November 2011 Striped Bass Management Board meeting, Paul Diodati, representing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, asked

“…even if you add in future young-of-the-year indices that might be better than the past ten years, is that projection of [spawning stock biomass] going to change dramatically or not until after 2017?  In other words, you have a trajectory that the projections are suggesting that we’re approaching that threshold [which defines an overfished stock] in 2017 under current conditions or average conditions…
“It seems to me that given that the past seven years of poor or below average recruitment, it is inevitable that is going to translate into lower [spawning stock biomass] over the next several years regardless of what happens over the next three or four years relative to recruitment.”
Gary Nelson, who presented the stock assessment update and contributed to its preparation, answered simply,

“Yes, that’s true.”
So there was little question that, regardless of the strong 2011 year class and regardless of what recruitment looked like in the near future, there was a likelihood that the stock would be overfished, or nearly so, by 2017.  Yet when the time came to consider a draft addendum that would have reduced harvest to prevent that from occurring, a motion was made, which passed 9 to 6,  to postpone further action on such addendum until after a stock assessment was completed, something that would not occur for another two years.

Because that’s how things work at ASMFC.

The concept of conserving a declining stock is viewed with suspicion, and efforts to do so are seldom made until the population falls to a point near, or below, the threshold for an overfished stock.  On the other hand, any chance to increase the kill is quickly exploited, and action to do so is quickly taken, even if the population is far below the target that denotes a healthy and fully restored stock.

And that perennial truth about ASMFC seems to be playing out here once again.

To be fair, it’s far from certain that the Management Board will increase striped bass harvest.  The Technical Committee was only asked to determine the percentage increase in harvest that would, in theory, be needed to reach the target level.

Once the Technical Committee comes back with that number, the Management Board may decide that the change is too small to be worth worrying about.  

It may recognize the folly inherent in changing regulations based only on 2015 data, when there may have been higher landings in 2016.  

It may consider the poor 2016 spawn in Maryland, and decide that it makes sense to be cautious.

Or, it may move forward with measures that would increase the kill.

But the very fact that the Management Board would entertain Maryland’s motion, and open the door to even the possibility of increasing the striped bass harvest at this time, reveals the biggest flaw in striped bass management.

ASMFC isn’t subject to any enforceable standards.  There are no legal requirements that ASMFC’s management plans rebuild and adequately conserve striped bass or any other stock.  ASMFC’s management boards may, at any time, exercise their discretion free of legal restraints, and arbitrarily abandon management measures adopted just a year or two before.

Despite what the Center for Coastal Conservation might say, that sort of haphazard management just doesn’t work.  

That’s why ASMFC hasn’t managed to rebuild a single depleted stock in the past 20 years, although it has seen the health of a number of stocks decline during that time.

Right now, striped bass are badly in need of rebuilding.  The Maryland motion raises the question of whether ASMFC has the dedication and the discipline needed to get that job done.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Almost always, when we think about coastal fisheries issues, we concentrate on the fish themselves.  Is recruitment adequate?  Are too many fish being killed?  Has the population become too small?

Those are all important questions, but sometimes we seem to forget that fish live in water, and that coastal waters need to kept in a condition conducive to life.  We also tend to forget that fish that need not only good water, but an intact habitat that provides adequate places to spawn, to grow, to feed and to shelter.

We’ve recently been reminded of that here on Long Island, in both positive and negative ways.

On the down side, Long Island waters are becoming increasingly threatened by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from both fertilizers and septic systems.  Such runoff is leading to algae blooms that suck oxygen out of the bays they occur, creating hypoxic conditions that have led to massive fish kills.

The runoff, perhaps paired with warming waters, has also caused the emergence of a new threat, blooms of a phytoplankton capable of producing saxitoxin.  While such blooms have not led to fish kills, they have the potential to kill people, as the saxitoxin concentrates in shellfish, and can cause anyone who eats such contaminated shellfish to contract potentially fatal paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Even when such extreme events do not occur, blooms of the so called “brown tide” and “mahogany tide” can reduce oxygen in the bay enough to force fish out into the inlets and oceans for most of the summer.  They also disrupt the bay ecosystem by cutting off the sunlight that submerged aquatic vegetation such as eelgrass needs to survive and, by the sheer numbers of minute phytoplankton involved, make it difficult for mollusks such as clams and scallops to feed effectively.

There’s an old saying that “the solution to pollution is dilution.”  While that was probably never true, at least once people started congregating together in large villages, much less in huge urban/suburban complexes such as Long Island, once pollution of any sort enters the waterway, the only two options are to try to contain it, or to dilute it as quickly and as completely as possible.

The nitrates and phosphates that run into our waterways will hopefully, in time, be curtailed, but once in the groundwater or in the creeks and rivers feeding into the bays, they can’t be effectively contained, leaving dilution as the only option.

In the fall of 2012, we learned how well that worked, as “Superstorm”, nee Hurricane, Sandy swept across Long Island and cut three new inlets through the barrier beach.  

Two of those inlets were quickly filled in and closed by the Army Corps of Engineers, pursuant to New York’s Breach Contingency Plan.  The Corps wanted to close the third inlet, too, but that one carved its way through the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dunes Wilderness Area, where the provisions of the Breach Contingency Plan do not automatically apply.

The third breach allowed ocean water to feed into Bellport Bay, the easternmost section of Great South Bay, for the first time in almost 200 years, when another inlet in about the same place was closed by natural forces.

Historically, Bellport Bay had the highest dissolved oxygen levels in Great South Bay.  There was little exchange of water between Bellport Bay and the ocean, resulting in phytoplankton blooms and low dissolved oxygen levels.  From an angler’s perspective, Bellport Bay was effectively a dead sea for most of the fishing season.

However, once the ocean broke through at Old Inlet, all of that changed.  Tom Schlicter, the outdoor columnist for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, described what happened next.

“…the past several summers have seen a nice influx of fluke and summer school weakfish inside bay waters adjacent to this stretch.  For the past few springs, big blues and striped bass have followed schools of bunker into the area, and returned again each fall in numbers on one remembers ever being present this far back in the bay.
“It’s hard to say if the bait and predator species came rushing through the new gap in the barrier island or if the flushing action of the breach has attracted some fish while also making the waters more inviting to predators entering from Moriches and Fire Island inlets.  Either way, it’s pumped a lot of life into the estuary here—much of it along the mainland shore where anglers can cast from local docks and bay beaches.”
That shouldn’t be surprising, because the life in the bay evolved as part of the dynamic barrier system, composed of barrier islands, inlets and lagoons, where new inlets were regularly opening while old inlets closed, as the barrier islands reshaped themselves to fit the demands of wind and tide.

When people try to interfere with that dynamic system, in order to protect their investments in island marinas and summer homes, you end up with dead seas such as Bellport Bay before it was rescued by Sandy.

Even so, there are continuing rumors that the Corps of Engineers is still trying to convince people to close it.
Such effort flies in the face of other information that the Corps has had on hand for some time.  

In conjunction with its multi-billion-dollar Fire Island to Montauk Storm Damage Reduction Reformulation Study, the Corps interviewed Long Island baymen in 2000, on issues that included the impact of new inlets cut by storms.  The baymen’s comments were consistent.

“The breach agreement allows the government to fill in any breach, but breaches are the best thing for the bay, and hopefully they will continue.  Pike’s and Little Pike’s Inlets were the two breaches.  After the breach in the fall of 1992, water quality improved tremendously in Moriches Bay, and the scallop population soared.  Without a doubt the breach made the water cleaner and clearer, breaches also make a very productive bottom.  The Brookhaven Baymen’s Association fought to keep the breach open because of the excellent water quality in the west end of Moriches Bay…”
“’No flushing makes a dead sea.’  Quantuck Bay, between Moriches and Shinnecock Bays, is always brown.  There is no flushing in Quantuck Bay, and in the summer the brown tide percolates and turns the water brown.  There is seasonal shellfishing in the winter months, but you can’t make a day’s pay, and the clams don’t look healthy.  There is not enough oxygen for the clams on the bottom.  Clams need to have a frequent flushing over them, and a soft and clean bottom without silt build-up…”
“…there is no water flow in Great South Bay.  After the breach there was good clamming and fishing.  There is no flushing now.  There was flushing and growth during that time, but there’s no flushing now.  Well-flushed areas support life, but stagnant areas do not…”
“The change in water quality occurred after Pike’s Breach.  Fishing improved at that time, and the fish were plentiful…more inlets are needed increase flushing and diffuse and dilute pollution levels.”

“One bayman said that he never saw the bottom of Bellport Bay until the breach occurred.  The last good year for water quality and harvesting shellfish was 1994.  You could find quahogs, scallops, and razor and soft-shell clams.  There were massive amounts of clams.  One bayman got approximately 20 bags of shellfish in 45 minutes.  He couldn’t scoop them up fast enough.  Fishing was also good for approximately 1 year after the breach.”
The breaches referred to in the comments were cut through Pike’s Beach in Westhampton after two severe nor’easters raked Long Island in late 1992.  Despite the breaches’ obvious benefits to the water quality and life in the bays, and the baymen’s effots to keep such breaches open, they were closed by the Army Corps of Engineers nearly a year after they were opened.  

Such breaches, and their eventual closing, gave birth to the aforementioned Breach Contingency Plan, which mandates the closure of new breaches as soon as they occur.

No one knows for certain why the closures originally took place, or why the Breach Contingency plan “had to” be drafted, but one bayman interviewed by the Corps put the blame on local real estate interests, saying

“…consultants for West Hampton Dunes [a community cut off from the rest of Long Island by the Pike’s Beach breaches] threatened [the West End Baymen’s Association’s] president by saying if you support the baymen we’re going to publicize that Moriches Bay is loaded with transformers that fell off the telephone poles and put PCB’s [sic] (polychlorinated biphenlyls) in the water.  The pressure to fill in the breach and build houses back on the beach was so great that anything was said to make that happen, and not to make the area part of the National Seashore…”
The bottom line is that the Army Corps of Engineers were clearly told that storm-cut breaches in the barrier beach benefited life in the bay, and that closing such breaches did significant harm to shellfish, fish and the industries that depend on them.

Thus, today, the Corps of Engineers is planning to spend over a billion taxpayer dollars to better assure that such lifegiving breaches don’t occur again, so that Long Island’s bays might enjoy a fishless stagnation for much of the year.

To that end, it’s worthwhile to look at one old-time baymen’s comments with respect to Shinnecock Bay and Shinnecock Inlet, which inlet began its existence as a “breach” cut by the great hurricane of 1938.

“Before the 1938 hurricane created Shinnecock Inlet, Shinnecock Bay’s only source of salt water was Moriches Bay.  It was like Mecox Bay.  There wasn’t much flush here.  It used to stink from the lack of flushing.  There were also crabs because of the brackish water before the 1938 hurricane.  The trouble is getting the crab spawn to survive.  After the breach you could get 30-40 bushels of blue crab/day…”
When reading those words, it’s worth remembering that if the Breach Contingency Plan had b een in place back then, and if the Army Corps of Engineers had the same attitude in 1938 that it has today, Shinnecock Inlet would have been closed as soon as humanly possible once the hurricane had passed.  

Instead of the clear, vital Shinnecock Bay that we have today, which supports many commercial and recreational fisheries, we would have a still, stinking, fetid pool that, given the nearby housing activity, and accompanying septic tank construction, that has occurred in the last eighty years, would have all of the attraction of an open sewer.

So it’s not hard to argue that the whole premise of the Contingency Plan, that breaches be closed as quickly as possible, might run contrary to both experience and common sense, and is in need of substantial review…

Yet the Corps’ sand-pumping (I had originally mistyped that “sand-pimping,” and still wonder whether that might be a better description) efforts don’t only cause harm to fish habitat inside the bay.  They damage oceanfront habitat as well.

That has been a big issue down in New Jersey, where the Corps’ sand-pumping efforts have turned into a sort of double-whammy that plagues both fish and fishermen.  

First, the Corps is pumping sand from offshore ridges that have long been considered essential fish habitat and important fishing grounds.  Tom Dillingham, director of the American Littoral Society, a venerable marine conservation group, notes that

“They’re sacrificing the health of fish habitat for the protection of housing developments along the beaches.”

“The best sand is often in areas with the most fish, or at least the healthiest benthic communities—those with shellfish, worms, invertebrates and other marine organisms that live on the ocean floor and attract fish.”
Ken Warchal, a vice-president of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, observed that

“The Army Corps of Engineers’ own environmental assessment shows that Manasquan Ridge prime, essential fish habitat.”
However, the thought of severely damaging essential fish habitat doesn’t deter the Army Corps from their sand-pumping mission.   In the words of the Corps’ Keith Watson,

“When we were approved to use those areas, they were not essential fish habitat.  It’s the approved borrow area for the hardest-hit reach from Sandy.  Everything else is not compatible for [sand] grain size or has other issues.”
In the true manner of bureaucrats everywhere, the Corps seems resistant to changing a course that has already been decided, regardless of whether the latest scientific information now suggests that moving forward is not a good idea.

And once the sand gets to the beach, it does more harm, burying inshore structures and the ecosystems that they support.  

To be fair, much of that structure comes in the form of jetties created in earlier beach stabilization efforts.  However, much like the Hudson River piers in Manhattan, which frustrated the Westway project years ago, New Jersey’s jetties have now become the focus of a host of marine organisms, and so have integrated themselves into the marine environment.  Burying them would do environmental harm.

New Jersey anglers are quick to point out the problem.  An article in the Asbury Park Press explained their concerns.

“What’s even worse, said [Joe] Pailotto, [Chairman of the Asbury Park Fishing Club,] is that the project will effectively turn a thriving ecosystem into a desert.
“One area that will receive tons of sand is known as ‘jetty country,’ a stretch of rockpiles and groins that act as a nursery for a wide variety of fish and marine life, and offers some of the best recreational fishing along the Atlantic coast.
“’Would you bury a coral reef?’ asked Greg Hueth, president of the Shark River Surf Anglers.  ‘All that habitat will be filled in and destroyed and won’t come back.  It’s like burying someone alive.’”
Yet burying ecosystems alive is what the Army Corps does, and has been doing for a very long time. 

Although I’ve tried to limit this essay to the areas that I know best—Long Island’s South Shore Bays and the coast along the New York Bight—it’s impossible to ignore the damage that the Corps has done to coral reefs off southern Florida, smothering them with silt from channel dredging operations.

And it was typical of the Corps that, instead of admitting its culpability, it argued that the coral damage was caused by disease, and not by its dredging efforts, perhaps to better assure that its future dredging plans, near other reefs, will not be reexamined.  

Such claim was easily dismissed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which, unlike the Corps, is legally responsible for keeping corals, and other marine organisms, healthy and alive.

One could, in fact, easily argue that, rather than being responsible for keeping marine organisms that are affected by its operations alive, the Army Corps of Engineers far exceeds any other federal agency when it comes to the damage done to a wide array of marine life, and the damage wrought to marine ecosystems.

Thus, I was somewhat perplexed not long ago, when I was reading a new report issued by the Center for Coastal Conservation, entitled A Vision for Marine Fisheries Management in the 21st Century, and subtitled, Priorities for a New Administration.

I’ll undoubtedly discuss that report, in excess detail, in future blog posts.  It provides a lot of grist for the mill.  But the statement relevant here is that

“the recreational fishing community supports a strongly funded US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) with a robust recreational fishing and boating program.  The Corps’ protection and restoration programs seek to re-establish the natural functions of America’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and coasts.  In addition, the Corps’ navigation and development projects mitigate important aquatic habitats and provide access for recreational boaters and anglers.”
While the Corps does play a significant role in dam removal, and in that way arguably contributes to “re-establish[ing] that natural functions of America’s rivers, (although it probably also played a role in damming them up in the first place) ” its history of channelizing rivers and destroying much of their ability to support anadromous fish runs and other forms of aquatic life, alone, more than offsets any good done elsewhere.

As far as the rest of it goes, well, Long Island’s baymen, quoted above, tell us all we need to know about what happens when the Corps engages in projects to “mitigate important aquatic habitats.”  “

“Mitigate,” as used here, is just another word for “degrade,” if not for “destroy.”

Thus, it seems very curious that an organization that tries to convince the public that it stands for “conservation,” and even has that word in its name, would want to provide more funding to the Corps of Engineers.

Of course, these are the same folks who want to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, so that anglers can continue to overfish and not worry about rebuilding once-overfished stocks.

Maybe when you take that sort of thing into account, supporting the Corps makes some sort of sense.

Or at least, has a certain consistency…

Thursday, October 20, 2016


Maryland released its annual Juvenile Abundance Index for striped bass a few days ago, and the news isn’t good.

To put that in context, the long-term average is 11.7.  When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission began recovering the collapsed striped bass stock in the 1980s, it determined that a three-year rolling average of 8.0 would signal that the stock had begun to recover.

So 2.2 is pretty bad.

Still, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources correctly notes that a single year’s index provides no reason to worry.  It issued a reassuring statement which said

“While this year’s striped bass index is disappointing, it is not a concern unless we observe poor spawning in multiple, consecutive years.  Very successful spawning years, as recently as 2011 and 2015, should more than compensate for this below-average year class.  Nonetheless, the department and our partners will continue to work to maintain a sustainable fishery for our commercial watermen and recreational anglers.”
That sounds fine.  But if we remove the word “consecutive” from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ statement, and take a broader look at striped bass abundance, does the poor 2016 figure give cause for concern?

While there were dominant year classes in 2011 and 2015, the worst spawn ever recorded in the 62-year history of the Maryland young-of-the-year survey, 0.89, occurred just four years ago.  Other than that record-low year, you have to go back to 1990, when the collapsed striped bass stock was still struggling to rebuild, to find a spawn that was worse.

Still, it’s true that some good year classes can make up for the bad ones, so it’s worthwhile to take a look at some recent averages to see where we might stand today.

The 3-year average is now 12.47, a bit above the long-term figure.

That’s good.

One the other hand, the 5-year average, which captures the terrible 2012 spawn but not the dominant 2011 year class, is a mere 8.81. 

An average of the last 10 years captures both the two worst and two best recent year classess, and returns a figure of 10.87, which remains below the long-term average, but not by very much.

Thus, if we look at the averages alone, it would appear that the Maryland DNR is right.  The poor 2016 spawn is largely offset by more successful spawns in other years.

On the other hand, to determine the trajectory of the stock, and figure out whether abundance is increasing or decreasing over time, you need to look at trends

They tell a somewhat different tale.

The long-term average reaches back six decades.  During most of those years, striped bass were hardly regulated at all, and overfishing was tolerated whenever and wherever it occurred.  The long-term average also includes the spawning stock collapse of the 1970s and early 1980s, when rebuilding had not yet begun.

A medium-term average that includes only the modern era of striped bass management, the years after the stock had been declared rebuilt in 1995, would yield a figure of 16.41, significantly higher than the long-term average, and well above the averages for the most recent 3, 5 and 10-year periods.

Even if the starting point for such medium-term average was moved back to 1986, when the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board adopted Amendment 3 to the management plan and began the stock’s rebuilding, such average, at 15.31, would still remain notably  higher than the long-term average and the most recent 3-year, 5-year and 10-year averages.

Thus, despite having the large 2011 and 2015 year classes included in the mix, the last 10 years of striped bass reproduction, when viewed through the lens of the past three decades, have not been particularly good.

In fact, the average for the past 10 years, 10.87, is the third-lowest average for any 10-year period beginning on or after 1986.  The only two 10-year intervals that returned lower averages were 2004-2013, when the juvenile abundance index averaged 10.47, and 2005-2014, when the index averaged 10.55.

It’s probably significant that all three of the worst 10-year intervals in the past thirty years ended within the past four years.

In contrast, the best 10-year intervals since 1986 included 1992-2001, when the juvenile abundance index averaged 23.69, and 1996-2005, when it averaged 22.24, more than twice the current 10-year average and ten times the 2016 level.

Even the average for the rebuilding period following the collapse, 1986-1995, was 11.76, about equal to the long-term average and somewhat higher than the average for 2007-2016. 

Viewed against that background, the current state of striped bass reproduction doesn’t look all that good.

Another factor also comes into play.

Unfortunately, springs seem to be getting warmer.

Unless there is a drastic, and completely unlikely, change in global weather patterns during the last two months of the year, 2016 will be the warmest year ever recorded.  Even taking 2016 out of the equation, the five warmest years on record occurred in 2015, 2014, 2010, 2013 and 2005.

That’s a trend that doesn’t bode well for striped bass spawning success in the long term.

In the short term, things look somewhat better.

The 2011 year class will begin recruiting into the coastal fishery next season, so anglers that have already been catching a lot of undersized 2011s will now be able to take a bass or two home.  In the Chesapeake, the 2015s will also start appearing in fishermen’s catches, although virtually all of them will probably have to be returned to the water.

So long as harvest remains at 2015 levels, it is unlikely that the stock will become overfished in the next few years.

The danger is that the abundance of smaller fish will lead to further calls to relax the regulations imposed last year, pursuant to Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan

Hopefully, no such calls will be heard, for the 2016 update to the most recent benchmark stock assessment has already stated that, at current harvest levels, there is only the slimmest possibility of the female spawning stock biomass returning to target abundance by 2018.  The small 2016 year class is certain to further slow the recovery of the stock, even if landings remain unchanged.

Increased landings would make recovery even less likely, and increase the possibility that the female spawning stock, already just slightly above the overfishing threshold, would decline enough to fall below that critical reference point.

Thus, all eyes should be on ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board when it meets next week, and all anglers concerned with the health of the striped bass stock should stand ready to challenge any rash effort, however unlikely, to increase the kill.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission released two documents important to striped bass fishermen.  One was the Performance Evaluation of Addendum IV Regulatory Measures; the other was an update to the benchmark stock assessment, which described the state of the stock at the end of 2015.

Both documents held some fairly good news for striped bass fishermen.

The Performance Evaluation indicated that, taken as a whole, the Addendum IV measures worked; the goal was to reduce fishing mortality by 25%, and it appears that the actual reduction was almost exactly on target, at 25.9%.

The stock assessment update indicated that the fishing mortality rate in 2015 was 0.16, just below the fishing mortality target of 0.18.  While all such calculations have inherent error, there is a 99% probability that, even if fishing mortality was higher than the target, it was still lower than the overfishing threshold.

The assessment update also indicates that the stock did not become overfished in 2015, as the most recent benchmark assessment had predicted.  Instead, at the close of the year, female spawning stock biomass was estimated to be 58,853 metric tons, about 1,200 metric tons above the overfishing threshold, but still nearly 14,000 metric tons below the female spawning stock biomass target.  However, because of the error inherent in the calculation, there is a 41% chance that the stock is overfished (which falls to a 25% chance when the average retrospective bias over the past five years is taken into account).

If fishermen, both commercial and recreational, remove the same aggregate number of fish from the population in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018 that they removed in 2015, the chance of the stock becoming overfished drops to 20% (just 9% when retrospective bias is considered) by 2018.

At the same time, there is only a 5% chance (12% if retrospective bias is taken into account) that the female spawning stock will increase to target levels by 2018.

Thus, while ASMFC’s recent news is good, things need to get quite a bit better before anyone should start showing signs of relief.  This is a time to stay the course until the stock shows real signs of improvement, not a time to throw in the towel and start killing more fish.

Unfortunately, some members of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board think otherwise.  Last November, while the 2015 fishery was still underway, they were already talking about easing Addendum IV’s restrictions.

The notion of increasing harvest was pushed primarily by the various Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions. 

It began with Michael Luisi, representing the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who asked

“I would like to have it on the record, Mr. Chairman, in your opinion when will stakeholders have an opportunity and when will this board have an opportunity to look at making management change for the future or are we just expecting to hold the line where we are indefinitely into the future?”
It was a strange question, as the harvest reductions incorporated into Addendum IV to Amendment 6 oif the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan were intended to reduce fishing mortality to or below the target of 0.18, which the recent benchmark assessment set as a sustainable fishing mortality level; no rational fisheries manager would think it’s OK to reduce fishing mortality to the target level for only one year, and then start killing too many stripers again.

Management Board Chairman Doug Grout, Marine Fisheries Director for the State of New Hampshire, confirmed that in his reply, saying

“this was not a one-year reduction.  It was clear that this would be in place until we made an assessment of whether we had accomplished our goals of the addendum or not…The next stock assessment is scheduled to be in 2018; and that was at the point that we were going to be evaluating what the impacts of our management measures were in obtaining our goals and objectives here…”
That didn’t go over well with the folks from Chesapeake Bay, with Mr. Luisi proclaiming

“...Personally that is unacceptable.  It is unacceptable to me that we have to wait that long.
“…When we took those reductions, the coast-wide reduction of 25 percent was expected to return fishing mortality to target in one year.  This board gave us the opportunity in the Chesapeake Bay to seek a lesser reduction of 20.5 percent.  We implemented measures to achieve that 20.5 percent.  What we’ve been hearing through Wave 4 on the recreational harvest indicates that we’re grossly over that 20.5 percent.”
After using overwrought words such as “extreme,” “crisis” and “suffering greatly,” Mr. Luisi went on to make a motion that Addendum IV’s harvest restrictions be “reconsidered.”

That motion was quickly seconded by Rob O’Reilly, proxy for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, who gave support to the motion by saying

“I don’t recall being told that a benchmark assessment would take us to the next management regime.  I don’t understand why it would…Management can certainly take place without a benchmark.
“I really don’t understand where the benchmark is coming from…I know within the Chesapeake Bay we were to a point where we all thought—I did not think one year.  I thought we adopted a plan for a two-year approach to be reevaluated and go from there.
“…We always stayed within the guidelines that the board had; and quite frankly, there has been opportunities missed already on the 2011 year class, if everyone doesn’t know that…  [emphasis added]”
I attended the October 2014 Management Board meeting, where Addendum IV was adopted, and listened very hard to what was said, and just can’t understand where Mr. Luisi or Mr. O’Reilly might have gotten the idea that the Addendum IV restrictions would last for only one or two years.  

After all, Amendment 5’s recreational bag limit of 2 fish, and its 28-inch minimum size, was in force for twenty years, surviving the creation of Amendment 6 and a number of addendums.

The only mention of one year was in the context of the time it should take Addendum IV’s changes to reduce fishing mortality to target, and two years only came up in a compromise motion that failed to find majority support (and which I opposed on the record at the time).

There was nothing in the debate which suggested that the new regulations shouldn’t last as long as those adopted in 1995, although there was also nothing that said that they couldn’t be changes somewhat sooner.

But most certainly not in just a year or two…

Patrick Keliher, fisheries director for the State of Maine, understood the need for a prolonged period of conservative management and opposed the motion, noting

“Our tackle shops have gone out of business, guides have gone out of business.  The amount of recreational fishing activity on the coast of Maine has been slashed.  Mr. O’Reilly talked about a trickle of fish coming to the coast.  It is going to take a lot more than a trickle to positively impact the State of Maine.”
And thus the battle was joined, with coastal states generally opposing the motion (with the exception of Delaware and, of course, New Jersey, which is almost always on the wrong side of conservation debates) and the Chesapeake states in support.  Ultimately, a compromise was reached, in which the stock assessment would be updated as of the end of 2015, and the vote on Mr. Luisi’s motion (along with Delaware’s motion to extend the reconsideration of Addendum IV’s provisions to the coastal states as well) was indefinitely postponed.

So the big question is, what happens when the Management Board meets later this month?

The information contained in the Performance Evaluation and stock assessment update was moderately positive, but certainly suggested that managers need to stay the course and try to fully recover the stock, rather than settling for a spawning stock that falls far short of target abundance.

Will the dissidents from last November agree?

It’s hard to know.

Hopefully, Mr. Luisi, who claimed that his fishery was in “crisis” and that the reduction in Maryland’s recreational landings was “grossly over that 20.5%,” along with Mr. O’Reilly, who claimed that Virginia “always stayed within the guidelines” were sufficiently embarrassed to learn that their states didn’t reduce harvest at all, but were in fact produced substantially increased recreational landings—up 58.4% for the Bay as a whole—that they won’t continue to push for a bigger kill.

On the other hand, some folks in fisheries management don’t embarrass easily, particularly those who are trying to increase the harvest.  

Thus, anglers concerned with the striper’s future ought to watch the events of this month’s Management Board meeting very carefully, and be prepared to mount stiff opposition should initiate any plan to increase the kill.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Summer flounder, more commonly known as “fluke” at the northern end of their range, were at the center of fisheries debates throughout the first eight or ten years of this century.
It was the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) failure to take the conservation and rebuilding provisions of theMagnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) seriously that led to the landmark court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, which found that federal fishery management plans must have at least a 50% chance of preventing overfishing and timely rebuilding overfished stocks.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) application of that rule to various fisheries, not the least of which was summer flounder, led to the rebuilding of at least 39 once-overfished stocks.

The harvest reductions needed to rebuild such stocks also led to some fishermen’s calls for “flexibility” in fisheries management, and led politicians to introduce bills such as the current “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act” (H.R. 1335) which would allow federal managers to permit overfishing to continue for an extended time, and delay the rebuilding of overfished populations.

Once the summer flounder stock was rebuilt to near-target levels, the fishery fell out of the spotlight as the management of other species, elsewhere on the coast, became far more controversial. Now, it appears that summer flounder will be back in the spotlight, forthe stock is declining again.

This time, the primary cause is not overfishing, but rather six consecutive years of below-average spawning success.
No one is sure why fewer fluke are recruiting into the population, but as the size of the population shrinks, managers must reduce annual catch limits, to avoid running afoul of Magnuson-Stevens’ mandate against overfishing.
In 2015, biologists initially told the MAFMC that it would have to reduce the 2016 annual catch limit by 43% in order to avoid a further decline in the stock. The MAFMC’s Science and Statistics Committee (SSC) later decided that, because the available data was good, a 29% reduction was enough to avoid any harm.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be untrue, so in August 2016 the MAFMC reduced the 2017 annual catch limit by an additional 30% in an attempt to stabilize the stock. The additional reduction will undoubtedly cause controversy, particularly at, and after, the December joint meeting of the MAFMC and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, when the recreational specifications for the 2017 summer flounder fishery will be set.

Despite inevitable objections, there is no doubt that the reduction will take place, for the MAFMC’s Science and Statistics Committee (SSC) has determined that “the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.”

Should the summer flounder stock ever become overfished, Magnuson-Stevens requires that “action be taken to end overfishing in the fishery and to implement conservation and management measures to rebuild” the stock within a time period that does not exceed ten years.
Such rebuilding measures would probably be much more restrictive than those needed to keep the stock from becoming overfished in the first place, so both fishermen and managers have an incentive to halt the stock’s decline now.
Both harvest restrictions and rebuilding plans are anathema to critics of Magnuson-Stevens, who generally support H.R. 1335. They argue that fish stocks should be managed “flexibly,” in a manner that tolerates some overfishing and delays the rebuilding of overfished stocks, in order to minimize short-term economic harm to fishermen.
But when fisheries managers adopt a “flexible” approach, stocks are rarely, if ever, completely rebuilt.
The current debate over striped bass management at ASMFC clearly illustrates the problem.
In 2013, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board received a benchmark stock assessment (Benchmark Assessment), which indicated that the stock was declining steadily, had experienced overfishing for most of the past decade, and would probably become overfished by 2015. If ASMFC was governed by Magnuson-Stevens, that would have been enough to require a rebuilding plan.

But ASMFC is not governed by Magnuson-Stevens, and was guided solely by its striped bass management plan.
Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Amendment 6) requires ASMFC to adopt measures to end overfishing within one year, at any time that the fishing mortality rate (F) exceeds the mortality target for two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass (SSB) falls below the SSB target in at least one of those years.

Amendment 6 also requires ASMFC to draft a plan to rebuild the striped bass stock within 10 years should the SSB fall below its target in any two consecutive years and F exceed its target in at least one of those years.
The Benchmark Assessment demonstrated that both of those triggers had been tripped.
After a full year of debate, ASMFC adopted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 (Addendum IV), which had slightly less than a 50-50 chance of reducing F to target within one year. Addendum IV was adopted only after a number of jurisdictions bordering Chesapeake Bayunsuccessfully argued that the harvest reduction should be phased-in over a three-year period, despite the clear language of Amendment 6.

And despite the clear language of Amendment 6, no rebuilding plan was drafted at all.
Because ASMFC is not subject to Magnuson-Stevens, and because an appellate court decision effectively insulated ASMFC actions from judicial review, its failure to follow its own stock rebuilding rules was not subject to legal challenge.

Things headed downhill from there.
When ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board met in November 2015, representatives from the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions tried to weaken the measures adopted in Addendum IV, even though the SSB was nowhere near the SSB target.

Michael Luisi, representing the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, argued that there was a bias in the stock assessment. Due to such bias, which could produce overestimates of mortality and underestimates of the size of the SSB, he said that the SSB was somewhat higher than believed, and harvest could be increased.

He maintained that position even after Charlton Godwin, the Chair of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee, clearly stated that “there is no way to accurately predict what that bias is going to be and then to account for it…there is still no guarantee as to whether the direction is going to be the same or the magnitude.”
In other words, while there was a recognized bias in the assessment, such bias could either overestimate or underestimate F and SSB, and do so by differing amounts each year.
Mr. Luisi asserted that Amendment IV’s harvest reductions caused real harm to Maryland, saying “we’ve made the argument before we felt that these reductions were extreme. I’ve heard the word ‘crisis’ from my stakeholders. The charter, the recreational and the commercial industry are suffering greatly as a result of the reductions that we’ve taken.”
A few months later, despite Mr. Luisi’s claims of “crisis” and “suffering,” NMFS’ recreational landings estimates showed that anglers in Chesapeake Bay hadn’t taken any real-world reductions at all. In fact, both Maryland and Virginia anglers landed about 150% more striped bass in 2015 than they had in the base year of 2012….
Even so, Mr. Luisi made a motion to “initiate an addendum to reconsider the reduction options in Addendum IV for the 2016 fishing season in the Chesapeake Bay based on the results of the 2015 assessment update and retrospective projections.”
That motion never came to a vote. However, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee was asked to prepare another update to the stock assessment, which would be presented at the October 2016 Striped Bass Management Board meeting.
Should that update show an increase in the SSB, there will undoubtedly be another effort to increase the harvest, even though the SSB was nowhere near its target level. Such effort could be successful.
And that, in a nutshell, is why fisheries need cast-in-stone limits, and fisheries managers need hard-and-fast rules, not “flexibility.”
Under a “flexible” management system, managers are faced with too many temptations, and too much pressure from their constituencies, to see a recovery through to its end, and to fully enforce the provisions of a fishery management plan.
As a result, flexibly-managed stocks are seldom, if ever, fully restored. Instead, they languish in a perilous netherworld, never completely healthy and vital, and always just one or two poor year classes—or one or two excessive harvests—away from the brink of collapse.
That’s not a good place for fish stocks to be, and explains why such stocks should be managed like summer flounder, harvest cuts and all, and not like the striped bass, which faces a far more uncertain future.

This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at