Sunday, February 17, 2019


“Female [spawning stock biomass] for Atlantic striped bass in 2017 was 68,476 [metric tons], below the SSB threshold, indicating the stock is overfished.  [Fishing mortality] in 2017 was 0.307, above the F threshold, indicating the stock is experiencing overfishing.  [internal references deleted]”
So we know that we’re facing a problem, and hopefully we’re going to fix it.

Of course, saying that you want to fix a problem is easy.  Actually doing something that will make a material difference always proves to be quite a bit harder.

That’s certainly going to be the case with striped bass, because the hard numbers say that the remaining female spawning stock biomass is about 25% below the spawning stock biomass threshold, and about 40% below the rebuilding target, so any rebuilding plan is going to require some fairly severe cuts in harvest.  And while people are always pretty eager to conserve someone else’s fish, and cut someone else’s landings, they can often be resistant to measures that end up cutting their own.

Hopefully, striped bass anglers won't follow that pattern.

On the whole, recreational bass fishermen are a relatively conservation-oriented bunch.  That’s particularly true for surfcasters and the light-tackle crowd, who have learned the hard way that any reduction in striped bass numbers will affect the quality of their angling first.    

Even so, as news of the striped bass’ trevails begin to appear in the angling press and on social media, we’re already beginning to see some anglers taking a “not my fault” stance, and pointing accusing fingers at the commercial sector.

“Make the changes to commercial and charter limits.  My 1 or 2 every week or so can’t really be the issue… if it is…  it’s already too late.”
And that poster is right—IF he’s only talking about the bass that he, himself takes home.  But when you consider all of the anglers just like that poster, who each only take home a few fish each year, you get very large number.  “1 or 2 fish every week,” for many thousands of anglers, killed over the course of a year, can quickly turn into hundreds of thousands of dead striped bass, weighing many millions of pounds.

And when you start talking about that sort of numbers, they can very quickly become an issue.

A big issue.

Even so, there are some who have long sought to place the onus of striped bass conservation on others’ shoulders.  A recent article in the Cape Cod Times quotes Dean Clark, a board member of the recreational fishing group Stripers Forever, as saying

“The only way to increase [striped bass] biomass is to manage them as a recreational species,”
By “as a recreational species,” Clark means “by eliminating the commercial fishery.”  That’s long been a goal of Stripers Forever, which ended a recent report on the benchmark assessment with the words

“The only silver lining in all of this is that we may be presented with a return of the opportunity that we missed in 1988 to designate striped bass as a game fish in the coastal states.  Had that happened, we are confident that the decline we all have witnessed in the last 10 or 15 years would not have taken place.”
But it’s hard to figure out what that confidence Stripers Forever expresses is based on.  

So when folks point their fingers at the commercial fishery, and say that it causes most of the harm, their claims seem to arise more out of wishful thinking than from anything out in the real world.

A lot of folks won’t want to believe that.  They’ll talk about pictures they’ve seen of trawlers clearing bycatch off their decks, with a long slick of dead, floating bass trailing out behind them.  But while such incidents certainly occur, and result in disturbing photos that quickly spread across Internet fishing forums, they’re not the primary source of fishing mortality—or even discard mortality—of the striped bass.

Think of them as the mass shootings of the fishing world.  

When mass shootings happen, they get a lot of press, a lot of Internet coverage, and result in a lot of discussion, but they don’t happen very often, and contribute only a very few points to the homicide rate.  Instead, the vast majority of our murders take place by the ones and twos, in drug deals gone wrong, botched liquor store holdups and domestic disputes.  

In the same way, most striped bass mortality is generated a fish at a time, as anglers each take home a fish or two, and release many more, some of which, inevitably, die.  While the big bycatch events might be photogenic, they are the exception, and not the rule.

And we can’t really blame the charter boats, either.  

Again, there are times when we see the party and charter boats hitting the bass pretty hard, but they make up only a small part of the picture.  In 2018, preliminary numbers show that anglers killed about 2.25 million striped bass in the New England/Mid-Atlantic region.  Less than 240,000 of those fish—barely more than 10%--can be attributed to the for-hire sector.

So when we look at the striped bass’ problems, the first thing that we need to do is admit that we—the surf and private-boat recreational fishermen—are the primary source of fishing mortality, and thus will have to shoulder the primary burden of bringing back the striped bass stock.  

That doesn’t mean that such burden shouldn't be shared; if, just for the sake of example, another 25% reduction in landings is needed to rebuild the stock, then the measures adopted should seek to reduce each of the private boat/surf, for-hire and commercial landings by at least that amount.  
But because we account for so much of the landings, when it comes to absolute numbers, rather than percentages, most of the savings will, of necessity, come from us.

How those cuts will have to be made will always be an issue.

Striped bass mortality has not been symmetrical, and neither were the reductions that resulted from the last management action, Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.  

Pursuant to such Addendum, coastal states were supposed to land 25% less in 2015, compared to 2013, while Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions were supposed to land 20.5% less than they had in 2012.  The decision to establish different reductions for the Bay and the coast was well-intentioned, but like many good intentions, it paved the wrong road.  While the commercial bass fisheries achieved their required cuts, and coastal anglers did, too, recreational fishermen in the Chesapeake substantially increased their kill.

As a result, while coastal anglers harvested, or lost to release mortality, fewer than 390,000 striped bass last year, anglers in inland waters—which, with some tiny exceptions, means Chesapeake Bay—killed nearly 1.9 million, about 85% of all recreational landings.  And while many of those fish were undoubtedly males, many were also females that were still too young to spawn. 

In addition, biologists assume that about 9% of all bass released don’t survive the experience, but Maryland fishery managers believe that, under adverse conditions, the actual release mortality in Chesapeake Bay could exceed 25% at times, saying

“27% is the more appropriate figure given current fishing techniques and environmental conditions in Chesapeake Bay during the warmest months of the summer [up through and including 2017]”
The estimate of dead discards in the benchmark assessment could well have underestimated the actual fishing mortality attributable to Chesapeake Bay anglers.

Thus, reducing the fishing mortality attributable to Bay anglers—and making sure that they meet their mandated reductions this time, and don’t shirk them as they did in the wake of Addendum IV—is going to be a big part of any recovery plan.  Most of the kill in the Bay consists of young fish that have just recruited into the population.  Many fall below the Chesapeake jurisdictions’ low 19- and 20-inch size limits.

Killing too many of those little fish is arguably equivalent to killing the striper’s future.

But coastal anglers will have to do their part too, using circle hooks in bait (already required in the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay) and being more aware of good release practices.  Prominent among those will be keeping bass in the water as much as possible, and not waving them around for photos while they’re desperately trying to breathe.

Think about someone holding your head underwater after you’ve finished a mile-long run, or completed a really tough workout, and you get an idea what bass experience in front of your camera’s lens.

And everywhere, we can expect size limits to increase, bag limits—in the few places where they allow more than one—to come down, and maybe even see a season, particularly in areas where warm summer waters are likely to reduce chances for released fish’s survival.

The bottom line is that, if we want to see the abundance of bass in the water increase, then the number of bass that go into coolers, and are otherwise killed, needs to come down.

As the primary cause of striped bass mortality, we, the surf and private-boat anglers, must take the lead in making that happen.

Thursday, February 14, 2019


Sometimes, it’s nice to be wrong.

But once again, I was reminded that it’s best to leave fisheries science to the people who have trained all their lives to do that sort of work, and merely report on their findings, because the news conveyed by the benchmark assessment was, on the whole, pretty good.

It’s not official yet—the recent government shutdown delayed the release of the final version—but we already know that the 2018 assessment has passed peer review, and will guide future management decisions.  But the new benchmark assessment clearly states that

“The final model adopted by the 2018 [Stock Assessment Workshop] 66 [Summer Flounder Working Group] for the evaluation of stock status indicates that the summer flounder stock was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring in 2017 relative to the biological reference points established in this 2018 SAW 66 assessment.  [emphasis added]”
Even better,

‘[Spawning stock biomass] was estimated to be 44,552 [metric tons] in 2017, 78% of the new biomass target reference point,”

As a result of that improvement, summer flounder catch limits will almost certainly increase substantially over those tentatively set at the August 2018 Mid-Atlantic Council meeting.

That’s a large increase, and unless something very unexpected happens, we can expect to see recreational summer flounder regulations significantly relaxed this year.

How and why that’s happening demonstrates the way that good data drives good fisheries management, and how all fishermen can benefit from a science-driven management process.

When a benchmark assessment is performed, the stock assessment team starts at the very beginning, asking whether the assessment approach they had used before is really the right one, or whether a completely new model is needed.  In the case of the 2018 benchmark assessment, biologists considered a number of different assessment models; they settled on a model that was similar to the one used five years before, but contained many revisions that were expected to improve the accuracy of its results.

The assessment team considered, but ultimately rejected, a new model that included much more sex-specific data than had been included before, an approach that has been pushed by some members of the angling community over the past few years.  Contrary to the claims of a segment of the recreational sector, biologists on the Summer Flounder Working Group determined that

“There were not strong differences in model outputs (i.e. trends in [spawning stock biomass], [fishing mortality], [recruitment]) between those models that incorporated additional sex-specific complexity and those that did not; therefore, gains from the additional sex-specific information were not shown, and did not warrant selection of a less-developed model that required additional parameters and assumptions.”
However, that doesn’t mean that such a sex-specific model won’t be adopted at some point in the future.  One member of the peer-review panel endorsed the 2018 assessment, but also advised that

“differences in growth by sex of summer flounder complicates the derivation of appropriate management reference points.  It would therefore be useful to continue to develop and implement an appropriate separate-sex assessment model.”
Perhaps in another five years, that will happen.  Or, perhaps, it will not.

In any event, even though the model used in the 2018 benchmark assessment wasn’t radically different from the model used in 2013, it did use different inputs, and generated different results.

In fact, according to the benchmark assessment,

“the ‘New’ MRIP recreational fishery catch estimates result in an increase of about 40% in stock size.”
So it looks like there are more fluke in the ocean than biologists previously thought.  Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that anglers will be able to take home more fish—the biomass target and threshold, for example, might have been pushed upwards, too—but in the case of summer flounder, that didn’t happen.

As I mentioned earlier, when biologists prepare a benchmark assessment, they more-or-less start from scratch, looking at all of the data that has been compiled, including data relating to the ratio of males to females, the size of fish at any given age, and the size and age of fish when they mature.  It turns out that all of those things have changed in the years since the 2013 benchmark assessment was prepared. 

The assessment noted that

“The [Northeast Fisheries Science Center] survey data show trends in the most recent years of decreasing mean length and weight at age in all seasons and for both sexes…that indicates ‘slower growth…, and a trend of delayed maturity…There are trends in sex ratio that indicate a decreasing proportion of females (and therefore an increasing proportion of males) for ages 2 and older.  These trends in life-history characteristics had an important effect on the values of the biological reference points updated in the assessment.  [emphasis added]”
As a result of those changes, the stock assessment advises, the target biomass should be reduced slightly, from 62,392 metric tons to 57,159 metric tons; at the same time, the threshold fishing mortality rate, which is defined at the fishing mortality rate that would maintain the spawning potential of the stock at 35% of the potential of an unfished stock increased from 0.309 to 0.488.

It might seem counterintuitive to increase the fishing mortality rate while reducing the spawning stock biomass target, but the benchmark assessment explains

“The increase in the [fishing mortality] reference point (and [maximum sustainable yield]) but decrease in the biomass reference point is due primarily to the effect of decreased mean weight at age for older ages (mainly ages 6 and 7+, because of increasing numbers of older fish available in fishery and survey samples and increasing numbers of males [which are smaller and of lower mean weight] present in the catch and survey samples at those ages)…”
Because of that, we should be able to put a few more fluke in the cooler this year.

But it’s not all good news.

Recruitment of new fish into the population remains at below-average levels.  A stock assessment summary provided to the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee warned that

“The assessment shows that current mortality from all sources is greater than recent recruitment inputs to the stock, which has resulted in a declining stock trend.”
So if recruitment doesn’t get better, the good news is going to come to a screaming halt.

There’s also another, subtle threat that hovers over my home state of New York.

We had an awful fluke season in 2018.  There was some decent action in a few places, largely off Long Island’s East End, and there were some very large fish in the mix.  But over all, last year, New York anglers harvested about 560,000 summer flounder.  That’s less than half of the nearly 1.2 million fluke that they landed in 2017, even though the 2018 bag limit was a little larger, and the 2018 season a little longer, than in the previous year.

It’s not completely clear why landing were so low.  A coastwide lack of fish probably wasn’t the case, because landings didn’t drop as sharply anywhere else on the coast.  Thus, there is a reasonable chance that New York’s landings might have bounced back on their own in 2019, even without any change in regulations.

And therein lies a trap.

The Mid-Atlantic Council had already planned to increase summer flounder landings by 16% in 2019, to 5.15 million pounds; based on the staff memo mentioned above, that 5.15 million pound figure will be increased by another 28%.  Combined, that’s a substantial year-to-year increase that should keep most anglers happy.

But because each season’s regulations are usually crafted by looking back at what anglers landed under the previous year’s rules, there is a chance that some in New York will demand an even larger increase in harvest, one based on what anglers actually caught in 2018, and not on the state’s recreational quota. 

Doing that could create a real problem if whatever conditions led to the state’s unusually low landings last season do not recur in 2019, leading landings to double even before any increase attributable to the new, higher harvest limit kicked in, and causing New York anglers to blow right through their share of the recreational quota.

We should hope that New York regulations keep that risk in mind.

So yes, there are a couple of things that we need to keep our eye on. 

But those things shouldn’t distract us from the main message of the stock assessment.

Anglers should be looking forward to eating more fluke, without risk to the stock, in 2019.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


“promotion of a person’s welfare, especially that of an addict, child, or criminal, be enforcing certain constraints on them, or requiring them to take responsibility for their actions.”
In many ways, that exactly the role of a fisheries manager.

Fishermen, and fishing industries, obviously rely on having enough fish in the ocean to support their activities.  Yet, the very nature of those activities involves removing fish from the sea; if taken too far, such removals can threaten the future of fishing, whether as avocation or occupation.  Historically as well as today, fishermen have often failed to control their own actions, and have hurt themselves by driving important fish populations into decline.

That’s where fisheries managers come in.

When fishermen, focused only on today’s harvest, place their future welfare at risk, fishery managers have the job, and the obligation, of looking out for their welfare whether the fishermen want to be looked after or not.  Here in New York, the obligation to assure the states’ fisheries’ future is laid out in section 13-0105 of the Environmental Conservation Law, which 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 useable abundance and diversity for future generations.”
That’s a noble and worthwhile policy, but efforts to live up to it in the real world are often frustrated by the fishermen themselves, who tend to discount the future and spend most of their efforts trying to defeat any effort to conserve and rebuild fish stocks.  So managers are often forced to impose unwanted and very unwelcome regulations on fishermen, in an effort to save them from themselves.

That’s where the “tough love” comes in.

If managers listened to fishermen, and more particularly, to the recreational and commercial fishing industry, many fish stocks would become overfished, and many already-overfished stocks would slip over the brink of collapse.  Here in the northeast, we only need to look at the virtual disappearance of the southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder, or the collapse of once-vast stocks of Atlantic cod, to see how that worked out.

Yet, even though the lessons of history should be obvious to all, a large segment of the fishing industry has failed to learn them although, in all fairness, some of the most successful commercial fishermen now recognize that conservation really does pay, and in the most important currency—an abundance of fish that results in higher, more sustainable earnings.

Thus, managers must preserve the fishermen’s future, by establishing real constraints on their actions, and forcing them to take responsibility when they exceed sustainable landings limits.

That doesn’t make managers popular with many industry members; like the parent trying to turn around the life of a sullen and drifting teen, or the parole officer trying to keep an offender from heading back to jail, fisheries managers are often condemned for their efforts to turn fishermen away from their self-destructive path and onto a road that, in the end, will provide them with a better and more survivable future.
For the past few decades, I’ve watched managers use every skill that they owned in an effort to convince fishermen that conservative, science-based management was in their best interests, and I’ve watched a lot of those fishermen curse and complain, reviling the managers for trying to keep the future of their businesses alive.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure how they put up with it on a day-to-day basis; considering the abuse that they take at meetings, in publications and in various on-line forums, neither state, regional nor federal fisheries managers get paid nearly enough.

In many ways, along with shouldering their scientific and political burdens, they’re forced to act like underpaid nannies to a bunch of physically mature, but socially adolescent people who neither comprehend the science nor respect the management process.

Here in New York, the commercial fishermen are not, for the most part, badly behaved.  They’re a little rough around the edges, at times, but in mostly a colorful way; while there is a certain amount of sharp-edged banter at meetings, in the end, they stay well within the bounds of acceptable discourse.

But when meetings affect the recreational industry, the atmosphere is very different.  I thought of today’s “tough love” theme because, when I’m at a lot of these meetings, I feel as if I’m reliving my much younger days, and again seeing the inmates at my old junior high school’s detention hall.  There is little mature conversation, no respect for people nor process, and a smug satisfaction derived from some combination of excessive ego and a childlike failure to admit their own ignorance.

“We don’t care about your science.  Your science is bullcrap.”
At which point the speaker’s cronies, like teenaged rowdies, all clapped and cheered. 

So we go to meetings and waste too much time watching people perform for the crowd, posing at the end of their speech to bask in the hoots and applause of their pals.  We endure personal attacks and name calling, when we should be sitting down together to work towards needed reforms.  We’re forced to watch supposedly grown men acting like undisciplined children, and getting away with it for the same reason that kids do—to keep things sort of quiet, avoid outbursts of screaming, and minimize unpleasant scenes.

It’s difficult to deal with someone as an adult when they act like a two-year old—with colic.  And if the folks at the front of the room fail to discourage such bad behavior when it first raises its head, it always tends to get worse.

We’ve reached a point where fisheries managers should stop tolerating such actions.  We have a problem out on the water.  Many fish are no longer there.

Here in New York, we’ve effectively lost our winter flounder.  We’ve lost our spring mackerel run, and our winter whiting.  Tautog are a shadow of what they once were, particularly in Long Island Sound. Most of the cod and pollock are gone; what’s considered good fishing today would have been a bad day just a few decades ago.  Striped bass have been declared overfished; that hasn’t happened with fluke or bluefish yet, but both are sliding downhill.  Weakfish might or might not be getting better, but are still pretty scarce.  On the inshore grounds, the only thing left are porgies and sea bass; both are abundant, but it’s hard to support a business on just two species, and the odds and ends of whatever else might be around.

If there was ever a time for the adults in the room to get serious about preserving the future, that time is now.  But instead, we hear the same tired rhetoric about the fish being fine, with no need for more rules.

It’s time for tough love.

It’s time for fishery managers to promote the interests of the fishing industry, by assuring that there will be sufficient fish to catch not just this year, but next year, and also next decade.

And if that means placing additional constraints on the fishery, and making fishermen responsible for everything they do, then that’s how it should—and must—be.

Thursday, February 7, 2019


I honestly don’t know what I was expecting when I listened in on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board meeting earlier this week.

Yet, if I wasn’t quite sure what direction the meeting would take, I did expect it to be a fairly contentious session, with various factions staking out their positions and digging in for a fight.  It was virtually certain that no final decisions would emerge, but it seemed likely that a majority would decide to move forward, for good or ill, in one direction or another.

But that didn’t happen.  Some commissioners did make their positions clear, but the meeting was surprisingly low-key.  

While the distressed state of the striped bass stock, as described in the preliminary report, was the proverbial dead elephant in the living room, the commissioners generally avoided that issue, and instead danced around its bulky corpse, poking and prodding it, yes, but never directly addressing the question of how to make it go away.

The meeting opened with a presentation of the preliminary report which, in itself, was instructive. 

The preliminary stock assessment report revealed that, in 2017, recreational fishermen were responsible for 90% of all fishing mortality; of that, most was not comprised of landings, but of recreational discards (42% of all fishing mortality was recreational landings, 48% was recreational discards).  So the recreational sector will probably be the focus of any rebuilding measures.

In addition, when the benchmark assessment was first authorized, the Stock Assessment Subcommittee was tasked with providing projections not only on the current reference points, based on the female spawning stock biomass in 1995, but also on possible alternative reference points that would allow higher levels of fishing mortality—and so a smaller biomass and less stable spawning stock.  However, the Stock Assessment Subcommittee could not come up with valid model-based biological reference points, and so only offered one alternative, which was the female spawning stock biomass in 1993, a time when the stock was not yet recovered, but produced a good year class nonetheless.

At current levels of harvest, whether measured in pounds or in fishing mortality rate, it is very unlikely that the spawning stock biomass could reach the 1995 threshold by 2023, and even the chance of reaching 1993 biomass levels by then would be problematic.  The stock really has fallen that far.

Once the stock assessment presentation was done, Management Board Chairman Michael Armstrong, a fisheries administrator from Massachusetts, opened the general discussion.  He noted that, while the final benchmark assessment wasn’t yet available, its conclusions weren’t likely to differ from those in the preliminary report.  He then advised the Management Board that it was up to them how far they wanted to go at the meeting, while observing that

“It’s clear we need to do something.”
But in the end, it was also clear that no one was yet prepared to do too much.

That was the case even though, if you took ASMFC, and the Management Board, at their word, and expected them to follow the dictates of their own management plan, the path seemed perfectly clear. 

“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded in any year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below target within one year,”

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2.”
Section 2.6.2 of the Amendment says

“If at anytime the Atlantic striped bass population is declared overfished and rebuilding needs to occur, the Management Board will determine the rebuilding schedule at that time.  The only limitation imposed under Amendment 6 is that the rebuilding schedule is not to exceed 10 years.  [emphasis added]”
That seems pretty cut and dried, and you might have thought, given such language, that the rest of the Management Board meeting would have been all about getting those mandated things done.  And if striped bass were a federally-managed species, subject to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, there’s a likelihood that would have happened.

Federal fishery managers must base their decisions on the best available science.  They’re legally required to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks.  And, to the occasional horror of various user groups, they must adhere to the terms of their own fishery management plans, even if that means adopting unpopular measures.

If they don’t, they can be sued.

But ASMFC doesn’t work that way.  It has no enforceable legal obligation to end overfishing, use the best science, or to rebuild overfished stocks, and it can blatantly ignore the terms of its management plans whenever it chooses to do so, because its decisions aren’t even subject to judicial review under the federal Administrative Procedures Act.  Which probably explains why it has such a dismal record when it comes to rebuilding and conserving the fish stocks under its care.

So it’s probably not surprising that nothing particularly substantive came out of the Management Board’s most recent meeting.

Even so, some things were made clear, probably foremost among them the fact that the State of Maryland is going to do all it can to prevent the stock from rebuilding to the current spawning stock biomass target.  

That became obvious when Michael Luisi, Maryland’s marine fisheries administrator, was the first voice to question Michael Colestino, who presented the stock assessment report.  Luisi wanted to know if there was any one data source that resulted in the assessment’s conclusions; it was clear that he hoped that the assessment's findings that the stock was both overfished and subject to overfishing, largely arose from the new recreational landings estimates, which he could then attempt to impeach.  He seemed disappointed to learn that the assessment’s findings were broadly supported by multiple lines of information.

As the meeting went on, he asked additional questions, all seeking to blunt the impact of the assessment’s conclusions.  In the end, Luisi ended up expressing the hope that the Management Board would consider drafting a “new, comprehensive” document—which would mean a full amendment, and not an addendum—that would place less emphasis on retaining the larger, older females in the spawning stock, and place greater emphasis on raising the annual kill.  Although, when he said that the current management document, Amendment 6, was written

“when more striped bass were in the ocean,”
he unwittingly undercut his position, as its hard to credibly argue that regulations ought to be relaxed when there are fewer fish around…

Still, Luisi wasn’t alone.  John Clark, his counterpart in the State of Delaware, also pushed for a new, less restrictive amendment.  But it was notable that a number of Management Board members who have previously sought higher harvests were uncharacteristically quiet at the recent meeting, and ended up saying little or nothing at all.  It’s not impossible that the reality of past management errors, and the real implications of the stock assessment, are beginning to get them concerned.

It’s also very possible that all of the Management Board members were a little stunned by the reality of what they are going to have to do to dig out of this hole that they’ve dug for themselves by not taking action sooner, when the stock was still in half-decent shape. 

The could have done so in 2011, when they abandoned a proposed amendment that would have imposed a 40% landings reduction (in hindsight, probably just about the right amount, given the latest assessment’s conclusions), even in the face of a stockassessment update that, prophetically, informed them that striped bass would beoverfished by 2017.

And they could have done so in 2014, when another management trigger was tripped—biomass below target for two consecutive years, and overfishing occurring in one—but that trigger was also ignored; if they had acted, they would have had a five-year head start on rebuilding the stock, and would not have found themselves where they are now.

But they stood pat, because there had been no crisis yet, and now that the crisis is here, they seem shocked into a sort of immobility.  Because yes, the steps that they’ll have to take now, if they’re to live up to the commitments they made in Amendment 6, will have to be much more restrictive than they would have been if put in place, to conserve a larger stock, five or eight years ago.

So it’s not surprising that their first, collective reaction at this week's meeting was to take things slowly and defer any meaningful action until their May meeting, even though the technical folks made it quite clear that, assessment-wise, nothing is likely to change. 

Even so, there was some slight motion forward.

Doug Grout, a marine fisheries administrator from New Hampshire who has always been at the forefront of striped bass conservation efforts, broke the ice with a motion that read

“Move to task the Technical Committee with providing the Board with a report that shows the reductions in harvest needed to reduce F to Fthreshold and Ftarget (0.197).  Also provide one example of recreational bag and size limit combination (if necessary seasonal restrictions) needed to achieve those conditions a) on the coast and b) in the Chesapeake Bay and report back to the Board in May.”
It was a start, if a small one, to begin addressing the overfishing issue, although the restrictions needed to do that are likely less than those that will be required to rebuild the overfished stock.  Even so, it drew a few objections, although the motion ultimately passed by a margin of 15 to 1.

In October, the Management Board deferred action until they could review the results of the benchmark stock assessment.  Now that the results of the assessment are known, and the news is not good, Pat Keliher, Maine’s marine fisheries administrator, moved to have ASMFC staff prepare a letter opposing opening the area, known as the Block Island Transit Zone, which the Management Board could review in May.

That motion also found 15 in favor; one state delegation was completely split, and cast a null vote.

Of course, by May, NMFS may already have made its decision, and rendered the whole question moot.

Still, once again, the Management Board moved in the right direction, even if their motion was exceedingly slow.

So, right now, it looks as if May is crunch time, and maybe that’s good.

It will still leave enough time to get new regulations in place for the 2020 season, if that’s what the Management Board decides to do.

And it will give the Management Board members a chance to think about the implications of not getting the striped bass recovery right.  It will give them a chance to think of what they did wrong before.  And it will give them a chance to hear from constituents, about why rebuilding the stock is the right thing to do.

Don’t waste the opportunity to let them know how important that rebuilding is to you.

Sunday, February 3, 2019


Striped bass and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission go back a long way.

Not long after that, in 1985, the Commission adopted Amendment 3 to that management plan, a document that set the stage for what is arguably the greatest fishery management success ever seen on the U.S. East Coast, and perhaps anywhere in the nation:  Rebuilding the collapsed striped bass stock into a vital and abundant population capable of supporting active commercial and recreational fisheries.

But that success didn’t come without sacrifice.  Amendment 3 worked because it placed extremely strict restrictions on the striped bass harvest.  It required

“That the states prevent directed fishing mortality on at least 95% of the 1982 year class females, and females of all subsequent year classes of Chesapeake Bay stocks until 95% of the females of those year classes have an opportunity to reproduce at least once.  This objective is intended to apply to the fishery until the three-year running average of Maryland young-of-year index attains 8.0.  Management measures which will accomplish this objective include combinations of the following which insure that no fishing mortality occurs on the target year classes:
a.        Total closures of striped bass fisheries.  Where a state whose waters border on or are tributary to those which are closed should take complimentary actions to ensure the enforceability of those closures.
b.       Establishment of minimum size limits below which 95% of females have spawned at least once.
c.       Establishment of minimum size limits in combination with seasonal closures which insure that sub-adult females are not taken in open fisheries.
d.       Elimination of any allowable bycatch below minimum lengths.”
It also required

“That the Striped Bass Board support restoration efforts in the Delaware River system including the Delaware Bay and that a moratorium on striped bass fishing in the Delaware Bay system be implemented upon the onset of restoration efforts.”
Amendment 3 was a perfect example of the old adage that “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” because when it was put in place, the striped bass population was running on empty, and there was a real chance that if the 1982 year class—which wasn’t even up to the standards of what we’d call an “average” year class today—wasn’t protected and allowed to spawn, the striped bass fishery could completely disappear for the foreseeable future.

Amendment 3 was also proof that ASMFC could, if it chose to, take decisive action to conserve and rebuild not just an overfished, but a completely collapsed fish stock, and bring it back to abundance.

Because Amendment 3 worked. 

By 1995, ASMFC had completely restored the striped bass stock to health; Amendment 3 had worked so well that, just four years after its adoption, managers were already able to begin to relax some of its strictest provisions.  

By focusing on the needs of the striped bass, rather than on the desires of those who would continue to squeeze the last drops of blood from a dry and quickly crumbling stone, the Commission presided over the species’ spectacular recovery.

But once the bass had come all the way back, they soon grew complacent.  Or negligent.  Or both.

It almost appeared that, once the stock had been rebuilt, the members of ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board felt that they could just put the striped bass on autopilot and leave it alone, and it would manage itself without any mid-course corrections.

One of the problems, raised by experienced striped bass anglers from all over the coast, was the apparent lack of large females in the population.  

“It is clear that having a significant number of large fish in the striped bass population is not only desirable from an angling perspective, it has important biological ramifications as well…A concerned group of anglers have formed a coalition called Friends of the Striper to raise awareness about what’s at stake with Amendment Six.  The group recognizes that recent successful spawns can one day yield more large fish, but the only way to ensure a successful recovery is to have a management plan with appropriate biological targets that lead to a more natural mix of age classes.”
I was a part of that coalition.  We asked managers to establish a fishing mortality rate of 0.25 (at the time, a fishing mortality rate of 0.41 was set as the threshold, and 0.31 as the target), in order to reduce landings and so allow more larger, older females to become part of the spawning stock. 

We were opposed by the commercial fishing sector, and a large part of the recreational striped bass fishing industry, who were focused on the higher profits they believed would accrue if fishing mortality was closer to maximum sustainable yield.

Amendment 6 was, in the end, a sort of compromise.  

Commercial harvest was increased, to 100% of what it had been before the collapse, in the base years between 1972 and 1979; at the same time, the amendment made a significant concession to the concerned anglers, setting as its goal

“To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fisheries management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock; and also provide for restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.  [emphasis added]”
To achieve that goal, Amendment 6 included seven objectives, including

“Manage fishing mortality to maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long-term abundance of striped bass populations.”

“Establish a fishing mortality target that will result in a net increase in the abundance (pounds) or age 15 and older striped bass in the population, relative to the 2000 estimate.”

“moving back towards [maximum sustainable yield] and away from the conservation approach that this board has taken over the last bunch of years to get to the point where we are.”
Those who supported the 0.30 fishing mortality target told the rest of us, who wanted to see more conservative measures, that we shouldn’t worry because of safeguards built into the amendment.  

“We’re being overly cautious.  I just might mention that when we do eventually adopt Amendment 6, don’t forget there’s all those biomass and [fishing mortality] triggers in there  [emphasis added]”
In essence, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made us all a promise, that if the striped bass stock again headed downhill, they’d take action to stop it as soon as Amendment 6’s management triggers kicked in.

There’s no question that two management triggers, one addressing the overfished stock, one addressing the continued overfishing, have been tripped.  The only question that still needs an answer is whether ASMFC will stand by its word to cut fishing mortality back to the target and rebuild the overfished stock, or whether it will renege on its promise.

Right now, based on the Management Board’s record, there is some reason for doubt.

One Management Board member declared that

“We have a healthy fishery, a healthy stock, and I’m in agreement that we’re in a green light fishery right now.  We have [a fishery management plan] where we’ve built two triggers into it.  We have a threshold on abundance for spawning stock biomass…  [emphasis added]”
By making such statement, that Management Board member renewed the Management Board's promise that if the triggers were tripped, action would be taken.

But that didn’t exactly happen.

The 2013 benchmark striped bass stock assessment revealed that two management triggers—one relating to biomass, one to fishing mortality—had, indeed, been tripped.  They related to targets, not thresholds, and so were arguably of less urgency than they might have been if thresholds had been violated, but they were management triggers nonetheless. 

To its credit, ASMFC acted reasonably promptly to reduce landings by 25% in an attempt to end overfishing, but it didn’t respond to the violation of the biomass trigger at all, even though Amendment 6 specifically required the creation and implementation of a stock rebuilding plan.

If the Management Board had done what it had originally promised to do, and began rebuilding five years ago, there’s a very good chance that the striped bass stock would be in a much better place today.

So now we have very good reason to wonder whether ASMFC is going to renege on its promise again, and what the consequences of that might be.

Doing just that might be very attractive for an Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board that has hemmed and hawed and hedged in every one of its actions since it adopted Amendment 3 in 1985, the last and only time in its history that it had the moral courage to stand up and do all the right things to assure a healthy future for the striped bass stock—and, not coincidentally, for the long-term health of the striped bass fishery, as well.

Instead of facing the storm of controversy and criticism that will inevitably occur if the Management Board reduces landings enough to end overfishing and rebuild the stock, it may decide to take the easy way out and not honor the obligations it made when Amendment 6 was adopted. 

Instead of standing by the clear language of the amendment, it may resort to weasel words, and “adjust the striped bass management program”—the thing that Amendment 6 says it must do once triggers are tripped—not by rebuilding the stock, but by lowering its standards, and so render the current higher fishing mortality and lower biomass a kind of “new normal” for the striped bass.

There’s no law that could prevent that, right now.

“The reference points currently used for management are based in the 1995 estimate for female [spawning stock biomass].  The 1995 female SSB is used as the SSB threshold because many stock characteristics (such as an expanded age structure) were reached by this year and the stock was declared recovered.”
But the summary later notes that

“The [Stock Assessment Subcommittee] explored empirical and model-based reference points [as they were tasked to do by the Management Board]; an alternate threshold of SSB1993 is shown in Table 6.  However, the model-based approach (e.g., SPR20%) produced [spawning stock biomass] reference points that were unrealistically high.  As a result, the [Stock Assessment Subcommittee] recommended using empirically-based reference points rather than model-based reference points.”
Those statements, read together, are interesting for a few reasons. 

First, the current threshold equals the female spawning stock biomass when the rebuilding striped bass population first demonstrated the characteristics of a fully-recovered stock.  That would make it a reasonable minimum standard for a healthy striped bass stock.  If the Management Board decides to abandon that standard in favor of the 1993 spawning stock biomass level as their standard, they would be seeking to maintain the population at still-depleted levels, in order to achieve some assumed socioeconomic gain.  It would be a clear admission that maintaining a truly healthy striped bass stock was no longer an ASMFC priority.

If that happened—and we can all still hope that it will not—striped bass anglers’ current growing suspicion of, and dissatisfaction with, ASMFC will climb to new heights, as will the belief that ASMFC'S management boards will always subordinate good science and heathy fish stocks to short-term socioeconomic considerations. 

But it’s also interesting that the summary said that model-based reference points would set “unrealistically high” spawning stock biomass levels.

There is no explanation of why such reference points would be “unrealistic.”  It’s possible that there are some biological or statistical factors that led to that conclusion, and if that’s so, it would be wise to accept the experts’ opinion. 

On the other hand, the striped bass model has been developed, reviewed and improved over many years, and is generally considered reliable.  It’s curious that such a model would produce “unrealistic” results.  Thus, it's hard not to wonder whether the model-based reference points would be politically, rather than biologically, unrealistic.  

If they are, in fact, biologically attainable, but achieving them would risk the ire of a significant share of the fishing community, the next question raised would be why a set of science-based standards that works so well in federal fisheries should not also be used for striped bass.

Of course, the problem of socioeconomic factors trumping the heath of fish stocks, if that is, in fact the issue, would not be unique to ASMFC.  The regional fishery management councils were largely ineffective for the first twenty years after the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, just for that reason.  Only after the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 legally compelled such councils to follow the science, end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, did they became effective stewards of the nation’s marine resources.

So should ASMFC fail the striper, some anglers will undoubtedly begin to consider legislative solutions.

Hopefully, things will never get that far.

Hopefully, when the dust clears, tempers cool, and the final votes are taken, we will find that ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board has honorably discharged its duties, lived up to the promises made, and so helped to assure that the next generation of fishermen will know the same abundance of bass that we have enjoyed, both before the collapse and after the stock had recovered.

For they obligated themselves in Amendment 6, and that bill is now coming due.