Thursday, February 11, 2016

A LOOK INSIDE HEARTS AND MINDS AT ASMFC

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission plays a very big role in East Coast fisheries issues.

It holds the primary management authority for many key species.  The most notable of those, at least along the upper half of the coast, is striped bass, but ASMFC is also responsible for such important inshore fisheries as red drum, weakfish, menhaden and more.  In addition, it has significant say in how some federally-managed fisheries, including summer flounder, black sea bass and bluefish, are prosecuted within, and sometimes outside of, state waters.

ASMFC has a dismal record of restoring depleted stocks; Atlantic striped bass, rebuilt in 1995, still stands as its one and only success.

It often lacks the political will to keep overfished stocks from declining further.  Weakfish, tautog, and the southern New England stock of American lobster are but a few examples.

Many of the people who sit on its various species management boards have economic interests in the fish that they manage, or represent people who do.  As a result, ASMFC decisions often elevate short-term economic concerns above scientific advice and the long-term health of the resource.  Southern New England lobster, and the American Lobster Management Board’s years-long failure to take meaningful measures to address its collapse, provides the perfect example.

Yet, despite ASMFC’s many and serious flaws, the fish and fishermen of the Atlantic coast benefit from its existence.  It forces the various state fisheries managers to cooperate with one another and, thanks to the authority granted to ASMFC in the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, it imposes a sort of discipline that keeps any one state from drifting too far out of line.

Without ASMFC, each state would be free to become another New Jersey, always seeking and scheming to kill more and smaller fish than its neighbors, and trying to account for the largest share of the catch.  It was that truth, which initially prevented the rebuilding of the striped bass stock, that led to Congress passing the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984, which first gave ASMFC the authority to oversee state management actions, and ultimately led to the greater authority that it holds today.

Given ASMFC’s important role in East Coast fisheries management, it’s always helpful to have some insight into the collective thoughts and goals of the people who sit on its management boards.  Some of that insight can only be gained by knowing a few of the commissioners personally, speaking with them, and watching them interact with their colleagues over the course of contentious meetings.  Some can be gained by going over the meeting transcripts, where the personalities and policies of each board member will ultimately be revealed.

However, much can also be gained by perusing the results of a survey of its commissioners that ASMFC makes public each year.  In that survey, commissioners respond to a number of uniform questions, but are also allowed to give free-form answers on the problems and opportunities that they discern.  

The results of the most recent survey were released at the February 2016 ASMFC meeting, and they provide a good look into the hearts and minds of the folks who, collectively, dictate how many of our most important fisheries are managed.

Thirty-seven commissioners responded, and it seems that, by and large, they’re happy with ASMFC’s work.  

When asked whether they believe that the Commission has a clear plan for achieving its vision of achieving sustainable fisheries on the East Coast, the average response was a positive 8.08 points out of a possible 10, the third highest in the seven-year time series, although down from the two years before.  A second question, asking whether ASMFC is making progress toward achieving that vision, received an identical response.

The commissioners feel that they work well with each other, rating themselves an 8 on that score.  However, they don’t get along with others quite so well, rating cooperation with federal managers at only 7.11 (which is still the second-highest in the time series) and relations with constituents just a bit better, at 7.57 (also a second-place high).

When the commissioners get to the important issue, the effectiveness of ASMFC’s management, a dose of reality seems to set in.  We’re not given a chance to compare responses over a seven-year time series here, but rather just a comparison with commissioners’ views in 2014.  

Even so, the results are somewhat revealing.

When asked whether the number of stocks subject to overfishing is a good measure of management progress, the commissioners’ average response was a 7.47, down from 7.8 one year before, suggesting that they didn’t view overfishing as a truly accurate measure of how well the Commission performed.  

At the same time, they were not particularly satisfied with their progress in ending overfishing, rating such progress a 7.44 (perhaps equivalent to a college frat boy’s “gentleman’s C”?), down slightly from 7.66 in 2014.

There was even greater dissatisfaction with the Commission’s ability to manage rebuilt stocks, with that metric rated a mere 6.97, again down a bit from 7.17 a year before.  On the other hand, given that ASMFC hasn’t rebuilt a stock since 1995, that might not be an important consideration…

However, the best look into the minds of the commissioners may be found where they had an opportunity to verbally express their concerns. 

There are clearly thoughtful, responsible people sitting on management boards.  When asked

“What is the biggest obstacle to the Commission’s success?”
such folks provided answers that included

“Incomplete information about the stocks coupled with reluctance to make tough decisions without high level of certainty,”
“We sometimes don’t have a good grip on the long-term socio-economic aspects of good management, and that a little pain now can yield good fruit in the long run,”
and recognition of the fact that

“Once a species is depleted and overfishing is no longer indicated, the Commission has had little to no success in rebuilding depleted stocks.”
Perhaps explaining why that is so, others still try to avoid the tough questions, arguing that the Commission’s lack of success is due to

“Non-fishing factors such as changing environment and coastal development,”
and pulling out the old canard that some fish stocks aren’t rebuilt because ASMFC is

“Allowing apex predation or a dominant species to be the fall of other less aggressive fish species that are often as important to the eco-system [sic] as the top of the chain feeders.”
There are also suggestions that cooperation among the commissioners isn’t quite as good as earlier survey answers suggest.  One commissioner complained that

“A growing obstacle is the factionalism I see on certain Management Boards.  The desire to have other states make the sacrifices to rebuild stocks rather than one’s own state seems to be getting stronger…”
Another blamed the Commission’s lack of success on

“Politics and self-preservation by states.”
A troubling trend, which emerged in response to other questions, was some commissioners’ apparent desire to separate ASMFC actions from that of federal managers.  One expressed a desire for

“Developing a purely Commission discussion/perspective/position on species under joint management independent of the [Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council,”
while another said that the Commission should focus more attention on

“Correcting the problems dealing with the [Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee].”
Both are clearly references to some commissioners' preference for escaping the rebuilding and conservation provisions of federal law that bind the National Marine Fisheries Service, but are not binding on ASMFC.

In short, the survey makes ASMFC look very much like the federal fisheries management councils prior to passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, when there was no requirement to rebuild overfished stocks and council members could, and usually did, avoid making the tough decisions needed to replenish depleted fish populations.

It provides a picture of a very flawed, and yet very fixable and potentially very beneficial organization, that just needs a little outside help to put its house in order.

As was the case with the federal management councils, that help can only come from a concerned and informed Congress, that insists that the Management Boards do their job right, that they end overfishing and rebuild stocks within a time certain, and base their decisions solely on science, and not on short-term cash flows.

With the right legislation to help it along, ASMFC could easily become one of the most successful fishery management bodies anywhere in this nation.

Without such help, it is likely to continue to flounder along, forever lacking the will and the courage it needs to live up to its promise.



Sunday, February 7, 2016

STRIPED BASS: LOOKING FORWARD

Nothing bad happened at the February 2016 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board.

The previous November, the State of Maryland had tried to convince the Management Board to reopen the debate that ended with the adoption of Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.  Maryland was seeking more fish for its commercial and for-hire fisheries in Chesapeake Bay, although its effort was soon broadened by representatives of states in the upper mid-Atlantic, who sought to increase the coastwide kill.

However, action on that motion was postponed after the Management Board agreed to schedule an update to the benchmark stock assessment, which would evaluate the health of the stock at the close of 2015.  Satisfied with that action, in February Maryland again agreed that a vote on its motion be postponed, this time indefinitely.

That removed the immediate threat to the regulations adopted pursuant to Addendum IV.  The question is, where do we go from here?

The 2016 assessment update will be a good thing.  More information can only improve management of the striped bass stock; a year ago, I argued that just such an update should be performed, to determine whether the new regulations were sufficient to reduce fishing mortality to the target level.

The updated assessment will probably be released to the Management Board in November; in the meantime, folks both for and against a harvest increase will be speculating about what it will say. 

Maryland is betting that it will show a healthy stock, bolstered by a strong 2011 year class that has just entered the fishery with a smaller, but still above-average, 2015 year class waiting in the wings, and justify an increase in harvest.

Conservation-minded anglers will point to the Atlantic Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update 2015, which indicated that fishing mortality in 2014 was 0.205, about halfway between the target and the fishing mortality threshold.  They’ll note the good weather that stretched all the way through December 2015, and allowed anglers to kill lots of big bass throughout the autumn migration, and wonder whether 1 fish at 28 inches was enough to significantly reduce last year’s kill.

Anecdotal information can be found to support either scenario, and some will also support the folks who predict that we’re right on target now.  On the other hand, the 2015 update included an almost-even chance that the stock would become overfished at some point last season, so the size of the female spawning stock biomass will be on everyone’s mind.

In the end, though, the biggest question is not what the update will say, but what the Management Board will do with such information.  

After a 2011 update indicated that the stock was declining, and that overfishing might be on the horizon, the Board took no action, arguing that despite its decline, the stock was still neither overfished nor subject to overfishing.  Instead, it hold off until a new stock assessment, scheduled to begin in 2012, was completed.

Based on past performance, it’s pretty likely that the Management Board will take no action even if the 2016 update shows that fishing mortality remains well over target and that spawning stock biomass has not increased by any significant amount, and again would wait for the results of a new benchmark stock assessment scheduled for 2017. 

So-called “management triggers” contained in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass would supposedly compel action in the unlikely event that fishing mortality exceeded the overfishing threshold or the less-unlikely event that declining biomass took the stock into “overfished” territory by the end of 2015.  However, the odds are still pretty good that the Management Board, always reluctant to restrict landings, would choose to wait until the benchmark assessment is completed before taking action. 

On the other hand, if the 2016 update shows a significant increase in female spawning stock biomass, or if it shows that fishing mortality in 2015 fell well below target, some members of the Management Board will undoubtedly echo the words of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission’s Robert O’Reilly, who said last November that

“Management certainly can take place without a benchmark”
At this point, it’s anyone’s guess what would happen then. 

If the Management Board decided to increase the harvest ahead of the benchmark stock assessment, and followed its usual procedures, it would have to begin an addendum process.  

If such process were initiated in November 2016, we could see a draft Addendum V released for public comment in February 2017, public hearings in March and April, and a final version of the addendum adopted no earlier than May 2017.  

If such an addendum were approved, states would then have to go through their typical rulemaking process to put new regulations into effect. 

And If all of that happened, the states would probably wait until  2018 to impose any new regulations, to avoid the confusion that is inevitably caused by in-season changes.

Any new regulations adopted pursuant to the upcoming benchmark assessment probably wouldn't be put in place until 2020, so the folks seeking a bigger kill will certainly fight to make it happen sooner if they get the chance.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine that any data contained in the 2016 update will have a major impact upon the resource.  

Target fishing mortality will remain 0.180, and the overfishing threshold will still be 0.219.  Any allowable increase or decrease in harvest will be wholly dependent upon the size of the spawning stock biomass.  

Stock size would have to increase substantially to justify any significant change in the Addendum IV regulations—except, perhaps, in Chesapeake Bay, where a strong 2011 year class and an above-average spawn in 2015 might be used in an attempt to justify a higher kill of immature bass.  Now that the Chesapeake Bay fishery is fully integrated into that coastwide management system, and not awarded its own unique set of reference points, the likelihood of that occurring has substantially diminished.

Still, striped bass anglers are advised to remain aware of what’s going on in the fishery, and what’s going on at ASMFC.  For regardless of the state of the stock, there will always be folks who want to push things a little too far, and take more fish than is reasonably prudent.  

The only curb on such folks’ excesses is an informed angling public that is willing to raise the alarm and put up a fight when things threaten to get out of hand.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

FISHERIES MANAGEMENT: SCIENCE, POLICY AND POLITICS

It’s nice to think that salt water fish are managed solely by concerned scientists, who look at the data available and always make decisions that will best guarantee that stocks will be sustainably harvested and available to us in the long term.
But that’s not the case.
Science plays a role. Both the various coastal states and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) employ biologists who assess and advise on the management of various fish stocks. However, after the scientists have their say, two other factors come into play: Policy and politics.
Policy can be defined as the guidelines managers employ when they decide how data provided by scientists will be used to manage fish stocks.
Policies are needed, for one set of data may suggest multiple courses of action. If, for example, scientists establish a maximum harvest level to prevent overfishing, two separate policy questions immediately arise.
The first is, perhaps, the most basic. Will managers heed the scientific advice, and restrict harvest to sustainable levels, or will they ignore the long-term health of the stock in order to maximize short-term economic benefits?
Sometimes, the answer to such a question is established by legislation. In New York, Section 13-0105 of the Environmental Conservation Law begins:
“It is the policy of the state that the primary principle in managing the state’s marine fishery resource is to maintain the long-term health and abundance of marine fisheries resources and their habitats, and to ensure that the resources are sustained in usable abundance and diversity for future generations.”
That’s a pretty clear statement of policy. Although it has never been tested in court, it provides a good foundation for management actions. Other policy statements may be more ambiguous. The Charter of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission states that
“Conservation programs and management measures shall be designed to prevent overfishing and maintain over time, abundant, self-sustaining stocks of coastal fishery resources.”
However, the same section of the charter notes that
“Social and economic benefits and impacts must be taken into account.”
Neither conservation nor socio-economic considerations are given clear precedence over the other. The result has been a series of management plans that often impose restrictive measures on fishermen but, because of social and economic concerns, have not been restrictive enough to rebuild depleted fish stocks. ASMFC’s failed fishery management plan for tautog is a good example.
Assuming that managers do restrict landings, they must then confront the second policy question: Who gets to catch the fish?
That is becoming an increasingly complicated question.
Once, managers only had to worry about the recreational and commercial sectors. Both had their own views on who should receive the lion’s share of the catch, and rarely saw eye-to-eye, but at least they were easy to tell apart.
In recent years, both sectors have broken down into squabbling sub-sectors, each of which has its own view on how stocks should be managed. Not long ago, a conflict broke out in Alaska, which pitted the hook-and-line halibut fleet, the only vessels allowed to commercially fish for Alaskan halibut, against the factory trawlers fleet, which may not sell halibut, but inevitably kills quite a few as it captures cod, pollock and other species for sale on the world’s markets.
At a time when the halibut population is declining and regulations are growing more restrictive, should the small-boat halibut fishery be put out of business because the trawl fleet can’t control its bycatch? Should halibut fishermen, which have a relatively small economic impact, be able to threaten the operations of the multi-million-dollar trawler fleet, in the name of reducing halibut bycatch? Such policy questions have not yet been fully resolved.
Similar problems trouble the recreational sector. In the Gulf of Mexico, a federal district court has recently upheld an amendment to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s reef fish management plan that split the recreational allocation of red snapper into two separate annual catch limits, one applied to anglers fishing from federally licensed for-hire vessels, and the other to the remainder of the angling community.
The anglers who brought the lawsuit were already extremely unhappy with the harvest restrictions that had been imposed upon them in order to rebuild the red snapper stock, and became even more displeased after the judge released her decision. And that discontent is leading directly into the political arena.
Gulf red snapper anglers convinced their congressional representatives to sponsor legislation that would strip NMFS of its authority to manage red snapper in federal waters, and turn such authority over to the states. Since those states have already adopted recreational fishing seasons well in excess of the season prevailing in federal waters, it is likely that the proposed transfer of management would result in anglers overfishing red snapper, possibly halting the recovery of the once-overfished stock.
That would not be a desirable result, and illustrates why the health of America’s marine fish populations depends upon a strong and effective Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which governs fishing in all federal waters.
Under Magnuson-Stevens, there is no question that the scientists’ data will be used to manage fish stocks, as the law clearly declares that
“Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.”
Nor is there any question that stocks will be managed for long-term sustainability, since the law also decrees that
“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.”
And provides that
If it becomes necessary to allocate or assign fishing privileges among various United States fishermen, such allocation shall be (A) fair and equitable to all such fishermen; (B) reasonably calculated to promote conservation; and (C) carried out in such manner that no particular individual, corporation, or other entity acquires an excessive share of such privileges.”
So we have a law that sets clear policies about the use of the best available science, conserving fish stocks and allocating such stocks among various users. But can it pass political muster?
To date, it always has. One of the strengths of Magnuson-Stevens is that, as a federal law, it was passed, and may only be amended, after lengthy congressional deliberation that allows people from all over the nation to have a say. It is not the product of the sort of local political pressures that too often shape laws at the state level.
On the other hand, Magnuson-Stevens remains vulnerable to the various interest groups that seek to weaken its strong conservation provisions. Just last year, H.R. 1335, which would do just that, was passed by the House of Representatives.
Fortunately, the Senate didn’t take any action.
Still, the threat remains, for there will always be those who will seek to overthrow Magnuson-Stevens’ successful balance of scientific, policy and political considerations, and replace it with laws that reflect their own parochial interests. Such loss of balance would, in the end, hurt us all.

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"Fisheries Management:  Science, Policy and Politics" first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://www.conservefish.org/blog/



Sunday, January 31, 2016

STRIPED BASS: THE INK'S NOT EVEN DRY...

Beginning even before the release of the benchmark striped bass stock assessment in 2013, a legion of concerned striped bass anglers were engaged in a seemingly endless fight to convince managers to reduce striped bass harvest and rebuild a declining striped bass population.

When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board voted, in late 2014, to reduce harvest by 25%, we won a victory of sorts, although the ultimate reduction was smaller than we had requested.

But as soon as that fight was done, we were forced into another battle at the state level, as fish-hungry businesses and angling organizations began to press fisheries managers, using ASMFC’s concept of “conservation equivalency” to find was to kill more striped bass than the one fish, no less than 28 inches in length, that the Management Board set as the coastwide standard.

Thanks to the leadership of some state fisheries managers, notably most of those in New England and—yes, I’m proud to say it—right here in New York, 1 fish at 28 inches or more became the standard all along the coast, except in New Jersey, where conservation is as alien as a three-headed cow, and Delaware which, in recent years, seems to have been infected by New Jersey’s mismanagement efforts.

Now, with the ink on last year’s regulations barely dry on the page, it appears that New Jersey’s contagion is spreading even farther south, and morphing into a sort of even more malign infection as it hybridizes with native greed in the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions.

For when ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board meets on the morning of Wednesday, February 4, it will be considering three motions which, whether taken together or separately, can only undermine the gains won in late 2014.

Two of those motions are being carried forward from November’s meeting, and will require substantial public input; they won’t affect the fishery any sooner than 2017; the third, however, could be approved and implemented in time for this spring’s striped bass season, with no public input at all.

That change would allow Maryland to adopt the same sort of two-fish bag limit that is currently in effect in New Jersey and Delaware, which would allow anglers fishing in coastal waters (as opposed to Chesapeake Bay) to keep one fish between 28 and 38 inches in length, along with a second fish at least 44 inches long, or to adopt a 2-fish bag limit and a 33-inch minimum size.

The former option, which includes a 6-inch protected “slot,” is probably the lesser of the two evils, as it at least protects the important 2003 year class, fish which, according to information compiled by the State of Delaware and shared on the Delaware Surf Fishing website, should average 40 or 41 inches this year. 

Another proposed change, which affects the so-called spring “trophy” fishery, would simplify the  size limit from last year’s 28-36 inches or 40 inches or more, which was intended to protect some of the medium-sized breeders, to a flat 36-inch minimum that only preserves the smallest adults while targeting the most fecund females (under an alternate proposal, charter boats would be allowed to keep one fish between 28 and 36 inches, with the rest over 36, on each trip).

There is no Maryland data to support the proposed change to its coastal size limit.  Materials prepared for the February ASMFC meeting note that

“the use of Delaware’s conservation equivalency proposal has not been approved for use in Maryland.  Maryland’s coastal anglers have requested that regulations be consistent between the two states but Maryland’s Atlantic Ocean data is too poor to conduct our own conservation equivalency calculations…Examining the raw length data from MRIP, including imputed lengths, 25 ocean fish were measured in Maryland in 2011-2013, not enough to characterize the ocean length frequencyDue to the lack of data and the desire to have consistent regulations between the states, Maryland requests approval to adopt Delaware’s Addendum IV regulations for the 2016 fishing season. [emphasis added]”
It’s easy to criticize Maryland’s effort, based on the lack of state-specific data that provides some confidence that the proposed regulations would actually meet the Addendum IV mandate to reduce harvest by 25%.  However, doing so would miss the bigger point.

Biologists have yet to confirm that Delaware’s—and more importantly, New Jersey’s—allegedly “equivalent” regulations managed to achieve such 25% reduction.

That information is on the way.  At its November 2015 meeting, the Striped Bass Management Board agreed that an update to the stock assessment should be prepared, which would determine the state of the bass population at the close of 2015, and provide some real guidance on the impact of the new regulations.

In the interests of good management, no changes should be made until that update is released.  However, as we’ve seen so many times, that’s not the way things are done at ASMFC.

In fact, the change to the Maryland regulations are far from the worst proposal that the Striped Bass Management Board will address on February 4.  For one of the carry-over motions that will be considered would

“Move to initiate an Addendum to reconsider management options in the Chesapeake Bay from Addendum IV for 2016 based on the stock assessment update in 2015 and retrospective projections.”
That was bad enough, but the usual suspects in the Mid-Atlantic wished to amend that motion with another, which said

“Move to amend [the previous motion] to remove the words ‘in the Chesapeake Bay.’”
In other words, there are motions on the table to effectively undo all the hard work put into Addendum IV. 

And that is what the Management Board is going to consider on February 4.

Before the ink has had time to dry…

Again, it’s the sort of thing that we’ve come to expect at ASMFC, with Robert T. Brown, President of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, arguing

“However, the benchmark, which was raised in the [sic] 2013, and the board approved Addendum IV in October 2014 in order to reduce F to a level at or below the new targets—coastal states a 25 percent reduction; the Chesapeake Bay a 20.5 percent reduction—this Addendum IV needs to be revisited, restructured or abolished.  We moved too fast. [emphasis added]”
Because, sure, it was a peer-reviewed stock assessment and all—clearly the best available science—but that didn’t mean that ASMFC really had to use it for management…

Hopefully, no one will be surprised to hear that Tom Fote, governor’s appointee from New Jersey, quickly leaped on the kill-more-bass bandwagon, saying

“I’m probably going to get beat up on the internet again because they call me a striped bass hog [author’s note:  If one walks like a hog, and talks like a hog, then…]; but I’m looking at the science and I have to base my decision on the science.  If we had just really looked at the science, we shouldn’t have done this addendum to this plan…”
Fote based his comments on the fact that the Atlantic Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update 2015 estimated a female spawning stock biomass at the close of 2014 at around 63,918 metric tons, above both the “overfished” threshold of 57,626 metric tons and the 58,200 metric tons estimated for the end of 2012 in the Update to the Stock Assessment Using Final 2012 Data, and claimed that known retrospective bias in the assessment justified taking no action to reduce fishing mortality.

Of course, Fote assumed that the 2015 update, which showed a higher female spawning stock biomass, provided the correct estimate of stock size, and that the update using 2012 data was wrong, instead of it being the other way around (the sort of assumption one could be expected to make if one was, well, a bass hog…)  

However, if we actually looked at the science, as Fote claims to have done,  we’d know that in both cases, the numbers in question were merely point estimates, and that the best that the scientists can say, with a 95% certainty of being right, was that the female SSB at the end of 2014 was somewhere between 51,183 and 76,653 metric tons, and somewhere between 43,262 and 73,212 metric tons at the end of 2012, which means that the two updates don’t really contradict each other at all.

Furthermore, even if we assume that the point estimates are right, the 2014 update provides an estimate far below the biomass target of 72,032 metric tons, so there’s a lot of rebuilding to do.  And Fote and the other folks wanting to increase the kill must have somehow missed the statement in the 2015 update that

“If the constant catch of 3,402,641 fish was maintained during 2015-2017, the probability of being below the SSB threshold increases to 0.49 by 2015.”
Or maybe they didn’t, and just figure that a mere 49% chance that the stock became overfished last year gives them all of the confidence they need to say that things are fine and that there’s no reason not to kill a bunch more striped bass.

Back in 2011, anglers’ worries about a declining striped bass stock led the Management Board to consider an addendum that would have paved the way for reducing harvest before the last benchmark assessment was completed.  The Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update 2011 confirmed the anglers’ concerns, indicating a declining stock that might well become overfished in the near future.

Even so, the effort to reduce landings stalled in November 2011, just before a draft amendment went out for public comment.  The Striped Bass Management Board chose to postpone action until the completion of the benchmark stock assessment, because the management triggers included in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass had not yet been tripped, and so no action was required.

Today, two of those management triggers have been tripped, fishing mortality targets have been exceeded in multiple years and the stock is well below target biomass, with nearly a coin-toss chance that it became overfished last year. 

A new benchmark stock assessment will be undertaken next year. 

Yet, because a stock assessment update, which was never subject to peer review, suggested that the biomass was slightly larger than previously believed, people are now falling all over each other to increase the kill, not only before the next benchmark assessment occurs, but before management measures imposed to comply with the last benchmark assessment can even be evaluated.

It always seems that the ASMFC folks are quicker to kill fish than they are to conserve them.

At the November 2015 Management Board meeting, Robert O’Reilly, who represents the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC), seemed appalled at maintaining a steady course until the next benchmark assessment is released in 2018, saying

“I don’t recall being told that a benchmark assessment would take us to the next management regime…Management can certainly take place without a benchmark.
“I really don’t understand where the benchmark is coming from.  I would like to be able to speak for some of the coastal states as to what they think about the situation of waiting until 2018…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 re-evaluated and go from there…”
I was at the October 2014 meeting, and listened pretty closely, and I don't recall hearing anyone say that the Addendum IV measures would only last for two years.  

In fact, given the break awarded to Chesapeake Bay—a 20.5% reduction in harvest, instead of the  25% cut imposed on the rest of us—it probably would take Chesapeake fishermen two years just to get their fishing mortality down to target levels.  

That, I remember hearing…

Patrick Keliher, the fisheries director from Maine, got it right.

“The ink has [not] even dried on this plan yet.  We don’t even have the results of the regulatory actions that were taken last year by all the [states] in place.  I think this is very premature…
“…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…”

It’s going to take more than a trickle to positively impact the rest of the coastal states, too.  

However, if Maryland, the PRFC, New Jersey and Delaware get their way—and given ASMFC’s track record, that could very well happen—a trickle may be all that we get, unless we speak long and loud against any addendum that might emerge from the Management Board this February.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

TIME TO TONE DOWN THE RHETORIC ON BLACK SEA BASS

Any way you look at it, 2016’s black sea bass regulations are going to be a lot tougher than last year’s.  

That won’t be true everywhere; states between Delaware and North Carolina, which account for a very small proportion of the catch, probably will not see any change, but at the northern part of the species’ range, the cuts will be pretty severe.

That’s because we caught a lot of black sea bass last year.

Sure, there seemed to be a lot around, particularly from eastern Long Island up into New England, where a lot of natural hard bottom held plenty of fish right through the fall.  On the South Shore of Long Island, where I spend most of my time, there were plenty of sea bass available when the season opened on July 15, but they got hit pretty hard; with legal fluke hard to come by, a lot of effort shifted over to the reefs and wrecks.  It didn’t take long before the most popular pieces got picked over pretty badly, and decent fish became much harder to come by.

People don’t like to hear that, and keep trying to claim that the National Marine Fisheries Services’ estimates of recreational landings are wrong.  To an extent, I think that they’re right, but they should be happy that NMFS doesn’t agree; the estimates of party boat landings seem to grossly undercount the actual landings.  As an example of that, I point to the last season’s Wave 4 (July-August) party boat estimate for New York.  NMFS says that all of the party boats in the state landed fewer than 10,000 black sea bass during that period, yet the web page of just two party boats operating out of Captree State Park claim landings of 12,580 during the same period.

I fish the same waters that those party boats do, and from what I’ve seen, their numbers are probably right.

If NMFS had more accurate numbers, the cutbacks would probably be a lot worse.

Still, the proposed 23% reduction in harvest will hit pretty hard.  For example, in 2015, New York had a 14-inch minimum size, 8 fish bag limit (10 in November-December) and a season that ran from July 15 through the end of the year.  2016 regulations haven’t yet been adopted, but some of the preliminary possibilities include the same 14-inch size limit, but either a) a 4-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 15-October 21, b) a 5-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 30 through December 31 or c) a 5-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 15 through September 21, closes for a month, then runs from October 22 through the end of the year.

The odds are pretty good that the final regulations will look somewhat different from any of those, and if the unusually clement weather in November and December resulted in anglers landing too many fish, it’s possible that the cutbacks will be even greater than 23%.  

But you get the idea…

It’s only human to be unhappy when regulations become more restrictive, but the rhetoric surrounding black sea bass regulation has become so overblown that rational discussion is becoming increasingly difficult.

For example, a January 15 article in the Asbury Park Press is entitled

and begins

“Harvest reductions proposed for sea bass based on what recreational fishing industry members said is questionable science to back it up have some calling for a mutiny of regulatory measures.”
That’s not an opening that promises the reader a balanced account of the issues plaguing black sea bass managers, and the rest of the article continues in the same vein.  It is rich with quotes from people criticizing the management system and disputing the need for reductions.  However, comments from biologists explaining just why the reductions are needed, or why black sea bass present management problems, are notably absent.

Instead of presenting solid scientific facts, it only offers inane comments from fishing club representatives who say things such as

“there are more sea bass on the coast than what science has found.”
And that’s one of the less outrageous statements.

Down in New Jersey, members of the angling industry are openly calling for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to go out of compliance with the federally-mandated catch reduction.  The Fisherman magazine says

“In response, [some of those] in attendance at the January 7th hearing in Manahawkin have encouraged New Jersey decision-makers to defy the National Marine Fisheries Service cutback options by going out of compliance.
“’Anglers have to decide if it’s time to take a stand and say that they’re not taking it anymore.’ [Adam] Nowalsky [a charter boat captain] added, saying that he’s not sure how other states plan to react but feels that biologically speaking, the defiant approach won’t hurt the health of the fishery.  ‘It’s a paper exercise at this point, I don’t think anything we’re talking about with sea bass right now is a danger to the stock itself.”
It should probably be pointed out that Nowalsky is a charter boat captain, not a biologist, and thus might not be the best person to be making biological assessments of the health of the stock. 

He also doesn’t seem to be a student of practical fisheries management, as he is apparently unaware of the problems that states going out of compliance with federal rules have created in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery.  There, in order to compensate for excess harvest in state waters, the federal red snapper season has been carved down to almost nothing; thus, going out of compliance with federal rules would probably be a foolish route for New Jersey to take, given that most of their prime black sea bass grounds, including most of the state’s artificial reefs, lie in federal waters.

As the time when states must draft their black sea bass regulations draws closer, it’s time to tone down the overblown rhetoric and admit some basic facts.


“the 2011 year class of black sea bass is much larger than any other recent year class, and is contributing significantly to high availability in the northern states.  There has been no indication of high recruitment after 2011, and the Committee expects the 2011 year class to be fully recruited to the fishery at this time.  The Committee noted that this year class is currently being fished down quickly, with no indication of similarly large year classes coming in behind it.”
Which means that we shouldn’t expect black sea bass to always be as abundant as they are today; leaving a few more in the water is probably a prudent option.  


“Sea Bass are now considered by many to be the new nuisance fish,”
that
“The sea bass population is increasing so fast and their range has been expanding so far that our ‘best science’ cannot keep up with it,”
and that

“Sea Bass are now causing problems in southern New England where they are eating the baby lobsters and may be contributing to their decline”
are unsupported by data and thus clearly out of line.  All that they do is drive wedges of suspicion between anglers and the fisheries scientists who, in the end, we must look to as the guardians of America’s marine resources.


A new stock assessment will be completed late this year, which hopefully will survive the peer review process and give regulators a better idea of how to manage the fishery.


In the meantime, it is wise to err on the side of caution, to better assure that the healthy stock that we enjoy today will remain healthy, so that we may continue to enjoy it well into the future.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

HYPOCRISY SWIMS WITH RED SNAPPER IN THE GULF OF MEXICO

Anyone who follows fisheries issues down in the Gulf of Mexico knows that the red snapper debate went off the rails a long time ago. 

The important issues, such as how to best restore the stock to real abundance and how to prevent overfishing, have been more-or-less set aside.  Instead, a recalcitrant faction of the recreational fishing community, fanatically intent on seeing their own desires placed above the needs of the red snapper stock, has been fighting a dogged retrograde action, trying to block every Council move to improve the management process.

They recently tried to block a Council effort to split the recreational harvest limit into separate allocations to private vessels and to federally-licensed charter and party boats, but were shot down in flames by a federal district court in Louisiana.

The target of their latest blockade is, of all things, an advisory panel made up of recreational, private-boat red snapper fishermen.  The sort of people that, one might believe, are the very souls that such recreational angling groups represent.

But if you believe that, you haven’t been paying attention.  You missed the rhetorical battle that has been raging down there for the past half-decade or more.  And you missed the distant thump of the rotors that whirl in the distance, as black helicopters approach to whisk the red snapper away.
Because, if you believe some of these folks, there is a vast conspiracy

“by those who favor privatization policies that place ownership of public resources in the hands of a select few businesses…The alliance includes commercial fishermen, seafood processors, a select handful of charter/party boat operators, portions of the restaurant industry—basically anyone making a buck selling a publicly owned, wild fish in some way.  That alliance has been painstakingly and crafted by environmental groups with enormous resources…
“Everyone in the alliance gets something—the environmental groups get closer to their vision of the oceans as ordered aquariums.  The selected for-profit operators get a personal windfall they have no right to own.  The federal management system, which has historically been commercially biased anyway, gets to claim it is doing its job…”
If all of those folks—essentially, everyone other than the militant anglers—really do constitute some sort of conspiracy, it’s hard not to label it the “Conspiracy of the Responsible.”

For it’s composed partly of commercial fishermen who, beginning in 2007, haven’t exceeded their annual catch limit once and who, along with the seafood processors, actually sued the National Marine Fisheries Service a couple of years ago—and won—for the Service’s failure to keep the recreational sector from chronically overfishing their annual allocations. 

It is partly composed of federally-permitted charter and party boat owners who asked for their own, dedicated catch limit, so they wouldn’t be adversely affected by a steadily increasing private boat harvest that threatened to cut the for-hires’ season in federal waters—the only place that they’re allowed to fish—to nothing, while the private boats could continue to kill red snapper inside state waters once federal waters was closed.

 It is composed partly of environmental organizations, which want nothing more than healthy, sustainably-managed fish stocks, free of overfishing, and of federal fisheries managers who are legally required to end overfishing and manage fish stocks in just the way that the environmental groups—and any responsible users, as well—would prefer.

What the conspiracy theorists really don’t want anyone to know, is that the “conspiracy” also includes a lot of responsible anglers who recognize the value of federal management, don’t want red snapper stocks overfished and believe that anglers should be held to scientifically-justifiable catch limits.

Those are just the kind of anglers that groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association surely don’t want on a recreational anglers’ advisory board.  That sort of responsible angler is too likely to approve of the way NMFS is rebuilding red snapper, and too unlikely to put that rebuilding at risk just to increase the recreational kill.

And that is where the hypocrisy comes in.

Because CCA and ASA don’t really seem to oppose recreational advisory panels, so long as they can control them.  And CCA, at least, isn’t really against folks paying to harvest red snapper, either, so long as the "right" folks control the market.

In place of the recreational advisory panel proposed at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, both CCA and ASA support a so-called “Gulf Angler Focus Group” organized under their aegis, composed of anglers and for-hire operators that they allow to sit at the table.  A spokesman for ASA claims that such focus group

“presents a more unified recreational fishing community that will result in clear management recommendations to ensure healthy red snapper and reef fish stocks while providing equitable and reasonable public access.”
Or, to remove the double-talk, such “Gulf Angler Focus Group,” assures that only the CCA/ASA positions are formally presented to the Council; contrary positions that might have come out of an independent recreational advisory panel can be effectively squelched.

That kind of recreational advisory panel would suit CCA and ASA very well…

The same can be said when it comes to paying for “shares” to fish for red snapper.


“Proponents of catch shares argue that the system presents the best way to manage marine resources.  Left unsaid is that anyone who wants to enjoy that resource will have to buy it from a shareholder who paid nothing to own it in the first place…
“Plans under consideration by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council would expand catch shares to charter/for-hire operators, meaning they, too, would be given shares of the red snapper resource for free.  Assuredly, those operators will then take that windfall and charge the angling public whatever they want to access ‘their’ fish.”
“What kind of fishery are we creating with this system for our grandkids, for our kids or even for us?  The federal government is creating a situation in which the public is paying to give away our marine resources, and then forcing us to pay again and again to access those resources in the future…”
But just half a dozen years ago, CCA was singing a very different tune, and would probably still be singing it today if it wasn’t for the sharp rebukes that it received in the angling press.  On April 10, 2009, CCA presented a paper to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (drafted, curiously enough, in collaboration with some of the same "environmental" folks, including the Environmental Defense Fund, who CCA now stridently condemns) entitled “Is there a better way to manage U.S. shared commercial and recreational fisheries?

In that paper, CCA suggests doing away with the traditional open-access recreational red snapper fishery, and limiting access solely to those people willing and able to place the high bid on lots of red snapper tags.  Anglers of lesser means who were unable to afford the high bid on a lot of tags would be locked out of the fishery.

As the paper noted

“Let anyone who so desires to place their best bid and distribute to highest bidders—bidders could be individuals, states or organizations…”
“Those who buy tags can use them any way they desire—take the fish home and eat it, give them as Christmas presents, sell them, take their fish to a market and sell them…
So the “regular Joe” who might go snapper fishing a couple times every year would have to compete against well-heeled sportsmen, offshore fishing clubs, fish processing houses, commercial fishing fleets and even the same “charter/for-hire operators” that CCA complains about today in order to get his lot of 10—or perhaps as many as 100—tags, a situation which wouldn’t have given poor “Joe” a very good chance of success. 

In the end, it would likely be wealthier anglers, along with organizations that represent them, which would have ended up with the lion’s share of the snapper, a situation which obviously would not have upset CCA at all. 

The proposed auction process would have applied to all red snapper landings, and done away with the distinction between recreational and commercial harvest.  Thus, the commercial red snapper fishing industry, which has to consider the price it can pay and still operate profitably, would likely have been badly squeezed, if it could have survived at all.

That wouldn’t have caused the CCA folks many sleepless nights, either. 

Party and charter boat businesses who wanted to take clients out for red snapper would also have faced additional burdens.

But CCA defended the approach, saying that

“It is simple and arguably the most fair and equitable approach.  Every one—anglers, commercial harvesters, seafood processors, investors, and conservationists would have the same opportunity to access the resource,”
and predicted that

“Once the auction program has had a chance to establish a ‘free market’ price for tags, they could simply be sold at that price—state agencies, fishing clubs, tackle shops, fishing organizations and seafood dealers could sell them.”
That sounds a lot like what goes on today, with folks buying the right to harvest red snapper from someone.  However, CCA would have created a market structure that favored its view of the world, by allowing anglers or “organizations” [might that term ninclude CCA?] to purchase commercial shares.  Nevertheless, it still would “[force] us to pay again and again to access those resources in the future.”

Not too much different about the end result.

To be fair, CCA raised the possibility of using funds from the tag auctions to finance fisheries management programs, which the current catch share programs do not do.  However, that benefit is probably more theoretical than real, as even CCA noted that

“Currently, law probably would not allow direct application of collected fees to a red snapper conservation and management program.”
So why would CCA propose such a program back in ’09 and yet be such a staunch opponent of catch share programs today?

Again, the answer is clear. 

Whether we’re talking about the private recreational advisory panel, or a program that requires fishermen to pay to harvest red snapper, CCA has no objection to the basic concept. 

If CCA (or ASA) can use such a program for its own benefit, it will endorse the concept and call it a good one.  If someone else benefits, and CCA (or ASA) does not, then the same concept is bad and quickly condemned.

As the recent CCA press release admitted,

“It is difficult to explain why recreational anglers should be highly suspicious of a Recreational Angling Advisory Panel…”
because, in the end, such panel is clearly a good thing, so long as it is peopled by folks who keep the red snapper’s best interests in mind,

“but things are seldom what they seem at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.”
But when you see honest folks looking out for the red snapper resource, and hypocrites just looking out for themselves, you can still figure things out pretty well.