Sunday, February 19, 2017

SHOULD ALL FISH BY MANAGED BY STRIPED BASS ANGLERS?

Various angling industry, boatbuilding and “anglers rights” groups, upset that the current, science-based federal fisheries law doesn’t let anglers kill as many fish as some might like to, have been making the argument that federal fisheries managers shouldn’t tie their regulations so closely to science and data, but rather should employ less statistically-rigorous means to regulate recreational fisheries.


“fisheries that sufficiently meet the needs of recreational anglers while providing extensive economic benefits to their state and national economies.”
It’s immediately apparent that the health of fish stocks or the integrity of marine ecosystems are not addressed by that industry statement.

Instead, the tackle and boatbuilding industries effectively encourage fisheries managers to tolerate chronic growth overfishing, when so many small fish are harvested that few older and larger fish survive. 

The Louisiana fishery for speckled trout (more properly known as “spotted seatrout”), in which managers tolerate growth overfishing so long as recruitment overfishing, when the number of new fish entering the fishery drops substantially, doesn’t occur, is an example of what such fisheries looks like.  They have high bag limits, low minimum sizes and very long seasons—if they have any seasons at all. 

By removing most restrictions on harvest and letting anglers keep a large proportion of everything they catch, such fisheries tend to maximize angler participation, at least until recruitment overfishing kicks in and the fish begin to disappear.  And as any angler knows, the more someone participates in a fishery, the more money they spend, so it can be argued that growth overfishing will provide “extensive economic benefits to…state and local economies”—and to the same angling and boatbuilding industries who are advocating for such a management approach.


“Since old fish are better able to buffer adverse environmental fluctuations, growth-overfishing can lead to magnified fluctuations of abundance and decreased biological stability.  If harvest has evolutionary consequences, these changes may be irreversible.”
But industries’ principal concerns rarely revolve around the future abundance of publicly-owned resources, the potentially irreversible impacts that they may be having on such resources or the public interest as a whole.  With a very few exceptions—the fly fishing industry, which has long championed conservation, and elements of the outdoor industry, currently battling Utah’s 19th Century approach to wild lands use come to mind—industry is normally concerned with maximizing the income of industry members, regardless of the collateral damage caused.

That’s why tobacco companies shouldn’t regulate public health, oil and coal companies shouldn’t regulate clean air and clean water (but, right now, apparently do) and the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries should not play a major role in managing fisheries.

Industries’ interests and the public interest are often just not the same.

However, the tackle and boatbuilding industries, in an attempt to advance their own interests, are holding the striped bass up as an example of effective fishery management, and are strongly suggesting that all popular recreational species should be managed like striped bass.

The industry apparently highlights striped bass because it is one of the few examples of states successfully rebuilding a marine fish stock, and the only example of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, perhaps the most obvious example of concerted state management, accomplishing such rebuilding. 

It is probably appropriate that the industry, in its efforts to roll back more than two decades of successful federal fisheries management efforts, are relying on a striped bass recovery that was completed a year before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 was adopted by Congress.  In the years since the striped bass’ recovery—and in the years since the Sustainable Fisheries Act was signed into law—federal managers have successfully rebuilt 39 marine fish stocks, while the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has failed to rebuild even one.

Moreover, the striped bass stock, once ASMFC’s shining success, isn’t looking so good lately and, if some state managers get their way, it may soon be looking even worse.


A stock assessment update released late in 2016 informed managers that, after one full year of reduced harvest, female spawning stock biomass stood at 58,853 metric tons, just 1.2 metric tons above the 57,626 metric ton threshold that defined an overfished stock, and more than 13 metric tons below the 72,032 metric ton biomass target.

Fishing mortality had been reduced to 0.16, exactly in line with the intent of the most recent Addendum to ASMFC’s striped bass management plan, which was

“to reduce [fishing mortality] to a level at or below the new target [emphasis added]”
of 0.18.


“the upper and lower bounds of the confidence intervals for both [fishing mortality] estimates would essentially overlap.”
Furthermore, they advised managers that 2016 fishing mortality would probably be slightly above the target, at or above 0.19.

Even so, and with the female spawning stock biomass hovering uncomfortably close to the “overfished” threshold, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board began the process for increasing the striped bass kill. 

According to a press release issued by ASMFC, such action was taken because of

“concerns raised by Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions regarding continued economic hardship endured by its stakeholders since the implementation of Addendum IV and information from the 2016 assessment update indicating fishing mortality is below the target.”

The fact that the Technical Committee advised that

“although the assessment is very good, it may not be able to distinguish between fishing mortality point estimates of 0.16 and 0.18”
wasn’t mentioned at all.  Neither was the fact that the point estimate of 2016 fishing mortality exceeded the fishing mortality target.

Because that is the way striped bass are really managed--with little heed for the science, and economics the prime concern.

That’s just the way that the tackle and boatbuilding industries want all stocks to be managed—to benefit the industry, and not the public at large.

Which is why the public, and not the industry or their favored state managers, may prove to be the striped bass’ salvation.

Because striped bass anglers aren’t happy with the proposed harvest increase at all, even though they would be the alleged beneficiaries.

On the Water Magazine is probably the foremost angling publication along the striper coast, with regional editions covering the fishery from Delaware Bay up through New England.  When it announced the possible harvest increase in its on-line edition, the response from striped bass anglers was one-sided and clear, with comments such as

“Once again the fisheries managers put the end user first rather than the fishery.  I would like to know where the fishery has been successfully managed by these intellectually challenged individuals,” and
“Although the report indicates that the ‘…striped bass stock is not overfished..’ it is a very low bar that is being measured…The measured stock, 58,853 mt, is no where near the target…and projecting out, would take years to recover to the target…It is just amazingly short sighted to revisit the reductions which were only just recently implemented in 2015.  It appears there is very little spine in the agency meant to properly manage the striped bass stock. [emphasis added]”
Along with the succinct, but nonetheless accurate

“No.  It’s a stupid idea.”
Striped bass anglers seem to get it.  Whether that’s because there is an institutional memory of the stock collapse of the 1970s and 1980s, which is passed down through the ranks by those of us who were there and remember, or whether it is because striped bass have always been viewed by anglers as something special, the largest and most challenging fish available to inshore anglers of the northeast coast, most seem to have a gut-level acceptance of the need for conservation to protect their beloved “striper.”

That pro-conservation attitude is reflected in the outdoor writers who cover the fishery.  Recently, Todd Corayer penned an article entitled “Stripers should not be overfished; so give Max a call” in the Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.  He urges readers to

“Please call Max Appleman immediately.  Max is the Fishery Management Plan Cooridinator for the Atlantic States Marine [Fisheries Commission] and his phone number is 703.842.0740.  Max is the man taking calls from people opposing or supporting a move the ASMFC is considering to increase the harvest of striped bass.  Actually, they call it ‘liberalizing.’
“’Liberalizing’ is a wonderful word; grammatically correct, passively deceiving.  To liberalize indeed conjures up thoughts of loosening a restriction, relieving something or someone of a burden.  In this context, the ASMFC is feeling pressure from fishermen in the Chesapeake who want to catch more bass.  They are using the arguments that under present data sets, stripers are not overfished or experiencing overfishing…So logically then, the Baymen protest, they should catch and take more.  I say no…
“A friend sent a brief report about the addendum to the amendment with a one line observation:  ‘Well, that sucks.’  I agreed and almost on moved [sic] to the next e-mail but that is precisely how bad ideas slide through the system.
“Fisheries management is front-loaded; if you wait for a public hearing six months into a government effort to let everyone know your big idea or an addendum to their addendum, the train will have already left the station.  Your best intentions will be best served at the start of the process.  Public comments all get read and analyzed and many get posted on a website somewhere but to effect change, we need to start at the beginning…
“Harvest numbers should not increase based on a few level years and a statement that mortality levels are lower than the threshold scientists determined.  It seems clear that fishermen in these parts recognize have a goal of population abundance and not permission to take more and more.
“…if you have any inkling to see a beloved fish stay protected with very manageable regulations, this is the time to let your voice be heard.”
I never met Mr. Corayer, but I suspect that I’d like the guy.  

He seems like most of the striper fishermen whom I know, folks who don’t seek to kill the last bass in the ocean.  But unlike far too many, he also understands that striped bass fishermen need to get involved in the management process.
His comments about getting involved early show that he has a good understanding of how the management process works.

I urge everyone who cares about the striper to get up off their chairs and play a role in the fight.

But I also urge everyone, whether they fish for stripers or not, to consider one more thing.

Should all of our fisheries, including those currently managed by fisheries managers, be “managed like striped bass,” where a well-conceived management plan can be overthrown for the sake of a fistful of dollars?

Or should we insist that our fisheries managers all begin to think like striped bass fishermen, putting the resource first and, like Mr. Corayer, “have a goal of population abundance and [are] not [seeking] permission to take more and more”?

Should anyone ask, I know what my answer would be...   




Thursday, February 16, 2017

WILL "STEEPNESS" STYMIE OPPONENTS OF FLUKE REGULATIONS

If there is one constant in mid-Atlantic fisheries management, it is that restrictions on the recreational summer flounder harvest will always be controversial.
That is particularly true in 2017, after six years of below-average recruitment—the number of young fish entering the population—has caused the population to decline to just 58% of the target level, forcing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to reduce the annual catch limit by 30%.

As is typically the case, those who oppose NMFS’ action are attacking the science that underlies the agency’s decision to reduce recreational landings. The American Sportfishing Association (ASA), which represents the fishing tackle industry, claims that “the decision is being based on an outdated benchmark stock assessment,” while an article in The Fisherman magazine railed against “‘fatally flawed’ MRIP data, [and] the inherent issues with NOAA’s trawl survey methodologies,” even though a recent National Academy of Sciences report gave the Marine Recreational Information Program a very favorable review.

This year the opponents of fluke regulation are claiming that a new study, prepared by biologists hired by a group calling itself the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF), justifies their criticism of the current stock assessment. Such study found that “female summer flounder dominate the recreational catch; however…this does not hold below the legal size limit. On average, across all ports, dates, and depths, the sex ratio approximates 50:50 at 39 cm [15.6 inches], with males dominant in the size classes less than 39 cm and females dominant above 39 cm.”

They use the study to support the notion, expressed in another Fisherman article written by Nick Cicero, one of the founders of SSFFF, that “blame must be assigned to any management strategy that forces us to target spawning class females exclusively. It’s crazy, we’re talking biological suicide!” To avoid catching so many large females, opponents of the current regulatory approach suggest that “management strategies in the recreational fishery in the future should include the potential for a slot limit fishery” that established both a minimum and maximum size for fish that may be retained by anglers.

Proponents of such a “slot limit” argue that a slot that allowed anglers to keep smaller fish, and assure that males made up a significant portion of the recreational harvest, would better assure that enough large females survived to maintain the population at a sustainable level.
However, such argument runs afoul of two fisheries management principles: The need for a closed season to control harvest, and a measure of stock productivity known as “steepness.”
Season length comes into play because there are only three ways that fishery managers can limit anglers’ landings: size limits, bag limits, closed seasons or some combination thereof. As a rule, both anglers and the businesses they support consider a reasonably long season the most important management measure because it provides anglers more time to fish, which in turn results in more money flowing to angling-related businesses. There is no biological reason for recreational size limits to be as high as they are today; anglers could enjoy the same 14-inch minimum size that governs the commercial fishery, if they were willing to accept a much shorter season in exchange.
Proponents of a slot limit seem to forget that if anglers were allowed to retain smaller “slot” summer flounder (so far, no slot size has been proposed, but it’s reasonable to assume that any slot would bracket the point where males and females are equally represented in anglers’ catch), the season would have to be shortened to compensate for the greater number of legal-sized fish that would be caught.
And that’s where “steepness” comes in.
Like fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass, steepness is a parameter that fisheries managers must consider when setting annual catch limits. NMFS defines it as “the ratio of two recruitment levels; the recruitment obtained when the spawning stock is at 20% of its virgin level, and the recruitment at the virgin population level.” It is expressed as a number between 0 and 1; the lower the number, the more recruitment—the number of young fish entering the population—is dependent on stock size. A high steepness number, on the other hand, suggests that good recruitment can occur even when the spawning stock is relatively small.

Thus, proponents of a slot limit for summer flounder, who use the SSFFF study to justify their position, are actually contradicting themselves.
If the summer flounder population must include a large number of large females to guarantee good recruitment—that is, if summer flounder steepness is low—fishing mortality needs to be tightly constrained in order to maintain the large spawning stock necessary to maintain a healthy population. A slot limit, without a significantly shortened season, would allow anglers to kill too many fish.
On the other hand, if steepness is high enough to justify the higher fishing mortality that would result from a slot limit combined with the current season, then there is no need to assure that a large number of older females remain in the population, as good recruitment can result from a small spawning stock.
Whichever scenario turns out to be the right one, neither justifies a claim that the SSFFF study somehow negates the need to reduce fishing mortality today.
In fact, current science supports high steepness for summer flounder.
A stock assessment update performed in 2006 notes that steepness was calculated at 0.984, a very high figure. 

The last benchmark stock assessment determined that calculations based on such a high steepness number were “suspect,” and did not consider such figure in setting the permissible (threshold) fishing mortality rate. But even if the actual steepness figure for summer flounder is somewhat lower, that figure will still be high enough to assure fisheries managers that there is no need to increase the number of females present in the spawning stock.

Although, according to the benchmark assessment, the stock could actually tolerate a higher fishing mortality rate and smaller target biomass. Managers determined that “little gain…(<5%) was realized at fishing mortality rates higher than [the current threshold of] F35%=0.310," while the current target biomass and threshold fishing mortality rate provided a "buffer against short-term declines in recruitment," which is exactly the situation which faces the stock right now.
Thus, arguments that the SSFFF study has rendered to benchmark assessment obsolete, and that a new benchmark assessmentmust be performed before additional harvest restrictions are imposed, are not supported by science. The current assessment passed peer review by a panel of internationally-recognized fisheries scientists, and has been accepted by the eighteen PhD-level biologists that make up the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee. That should be a good enough endorsement for anyone.

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This post first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.  "From the Waterfront" may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/


Sunday, February 12, 2017

WHAT FISHERMEN DON'T (WANT TO) UNDERSTAND ABOUT SURVEYS

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to reducethis year’s annual catch limit for summer flounder by 30% was met with howls of dismay from elements of both the commercial and recreational fisheries.

Although the decision was justified by six consecutive yearsof below-average recruitment, which has caused the spawning stock biomass todecline to just 58% of the target level, many fishermen’s knee-jerk reaction has been to attack the data underlying NMFS’ decision, rather than in trying to understand how that data was obtained and used.

Some of the most frequently-attacked data has been that developed by NMFS’ annual spring and fall trawl surveys, which survey the abundance of a wide array of species found off New England and the Mid-Atlantic coast.

A letter that the New York Sportfishing Federation sent to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is typical.  In it, the Federation asks that no reduction occur until a new stock assessment is completed.  As part of its argument in favor of status quo regulations, it says

“We strongly believe that the data collected on the trawl surveys that were done by NMFS on their vessel “Bigelow” are grossly inaccurate.  The trawl survey vessel is improperly equipped and their gear type and methods for harvesting summer flounder are inadequate, thus rendering this data useless for management purposes.  [emphasis added]”
The Federation may well be right in saying that the NMFS vessel Bigelow’s gear is “inadequate” for the task of harvesting summer flounder.  However, the Bigelow’s gear is not intended to harvest summer flounder, but to survey the health of the stock, and that makes a big difference when folks talk about the adequacy of the gear used.

While the Federation is a recreational fishing organization, commercial fishermen may have an even harder time in understanding the difference between trying to harvest and trying to surveyA recent and frequently-quoted piece published by the Center for Sustainable Fisheries criticized the NMFS trawl survey with respect to another flatfish, witch flounder, saying

“Fishermen have long maintained that there is a huge disconnect between what they see on the water and the conclusions derived from the NOAA surveys and stock assessments.  Their claims have been dismissed as self-serving.  Now it seems the fishermen have a strong case.  On a recent bottom trawl survey, a typical industry net caught four times as many flatfish as the rig used on the government trawl survey...
“[A] boat was rigged to tow two nets simultaneously, each of the type used on the Bigelow, with one significant difference.  One net was fitted with a rockhopper and the other had a chain sweep.  Because different fish species behave differently, fishermen use a chain sweep, attached to the leading edge of the net and in contact with the sea floor, when targeting flatfish such as witch flounder.  These fish hide in the sediment on soft bottom to evade predators.  You will hear fishermen refer to fishing boats with rockhoppers as ‘hard bottom boats’ because those boats typically go after other species such as cod or haddock which tend to be found over rocky or gravel bottom.
“…[The Bigelow’s] exclusive use of a rockhopper has been a point of contention with the fishermen since the Bigelow commenced operations in these waters.  Fishermen openly questioned its accuracy in estimating flatfish abundance.  The survey work [comparing the two net types] has provided the evidence that their skepticism is well founded.”
That was the fishermen’s view.  In reality, the comparison between the two nets provided no such evidence at all.

However, the comments of both the New York Sportfishing Federation and the Center for Sustainable Fisheries does prove that the folks representing those organizations just don't understand the survey process.

When a fisherman pulls a trawl, such trawl is configured to maximize the number of the target fish species caught,  minimize time on the water and so reduce expenses, and generally allow the fisherman to operate as efficiently as possible.  But when a scientist pulls a trawl, such trawl is configured to catch a representative sample of all the fish, in a consistent and repeatable manner, at each predetermined area where sampling takes place. 

The goal of the NMFS survey is not to catch as many of each species as possible; in fact, catching too many fish can slow down and ultimately degrade the sampling process.  NMFS spells that out quite clearly, saying

“we want consistently comparable catches, from which we derive a whole series of measurements and samples collected from fish and invertebrates captured on each tow.”
NMFS notes that when too many fish are caught by the trawl

“The time required to sort and process the catch increases, which adds to the time required to conduct the work—either increasing the cost or decreasing the amount of geographical area we can cover.  Also, large catches must be subsampled to estimate what has actually been caught during each tow.  The combined effects potentially increase error associated with both sampling (reducing the number of stations) and subsampling.”
And that’s what fishermen are seemingly unable to understand.  The fact that a net may be configured to catch the most fish doesn’t mean that such net would be the best one to use in a survey.  Such a net might very well catch so many fish that the survey quality would decline.

The purpose of the survey is not to catch as many fish as possible, but to determine relative abundance.  As NMFS states in the operating protocols for the Northeast Multispecies Bottom Trawl Survey,

“Abundance estimates obtained from this survey are relative abundance indices rather than absolute abundance indices because catch efficiency of the sampling gear is less than 100%.  Relative abundance indices are comparable through time because survey catchability is held constant through standardization of gear, vessel, and methodology.”
Thus, even if the NMFS survey gear catches, at best, only 25% of the flatfish that are present, as the Center for Sustainable Fisheries’ comments suggest may be true, so long as it consistently catches 25% of the fish available, the gear used by the Bigelow is proper for its purpose, and not inadequate at all.

The only thing that remains inadequate is many fishermen’s knowledge of how surveys are done, and what information the trawl data is meant to convey.


Such fishermen require a new, improved understanding far more than NMFS requires a new stock assessment of summer flounder.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

MANAGING MANAGEMENT UNCERTAINTY

Fisheries management is not an exact science.
Although biologists are constantly refining their stock assessments and population models, there are still many sources of uncertainty.
Some of them fall into the category of “scientific uncertainty.” Such scientific uncertainty applies to all of the important parameters, such as stock size and the number of young fish recruited into the stock each year. Biologists deal with such uncertainty by specifying a “confidence interval,” stated as a probability that the actual stock size, recruitment figure or other parameter is included in a particular range of values.
The summer flounder stock assessment provides a good example. Biologists have a lot of good data available to them, and the assessment is updated each year, as new information becomes available. Even so, the confidence intervals used in summer flounder management are fairly broad.

Thus, while the Summer Flounder Stock Assessment Update for 2016 estimated the spawning stock biomass to be 36,240 metric tons (mt), it also recognized the uncertainty in that estimate, stating that “The 90% confidence interval for [spawning stock biomass] in 2015 was 32,605 to 44,425 mt,” meaning that there is a 90% probability that the actual biomass fell somewhere between those two numbers.

Obviously, management measures that are appropriate for a stock of 36,000 mt are a little more restrictive than they would need to be if the stock size is closer to 44,000 mt, but not restrictive enough if the stock size be closer to 32,000 mt. However, such measures would represent a statistically defensible way to strike a balance between those two extremes.
Because some degree of scientific uncertainty is inevitable, fisheries managers aren’t permitted to set harvest quotas at the overfishing limit (OFL), the threshold where overfishing begins. Instead, the Science and Statistics Committee (SSC) of each regional fishery management council must address scientific uncertainty by establishing an allowable biological catch (ABC), an upper limit on landings which represents the OFL, reduced by a buffer that allows for such uncertainty.

In the case of 2017 summer flounder harvest, such buffer reduced a 7,600 mt OFL to a 5,125 mt ABC, making it far less likely that overfishing will occur.
Scientific uncertainty is only half of the problem that managers face when setting annual catch limits (ACLs); they must account for management uncertainty as well. Unlike scientific uncertainty, which must be considered when setting ABCs, management uncertainty need not be considered at all.

Management uncertainty can arise in a number of ways. Harvest might not be accurately calculated; that’s a particular problem in recreational fisheries, where harvest is estimated based on a survey, and less of a problem in commercial fisheries, where landings must be reported. Managers can never be completely certain that the regulations that they adopt in any given year will prevent overfishing. Even if the regulations opposed are adequate, there is no guarantee that all fishermen will obey them.
Thus, management uncertainty can have a real impact on the success of management measures. However, because accounting for uncertainty will inevitably reduce ACLs, regional fishery management councils are often reluctant to do so.
That became a particular problem for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) a few years ago, which couldn’t keep recreational fishermen from exceeding their ACL for red snapper.
Anglers caught too many red snapper in every year between 2008 and 2013, with the exception of 2010, when the catastrophic oil spill that occurred after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well blew up kept fishermen off the water.
The Gulf Council admitted that “management uncertainty was high for the recreational sector,” but refused to adopt the 20% buffer recommended by its SSC. It argued that a new benchmark stock assessment and better methods of gathering recreational data rendered such a large buffer unnecessary.

A group of commercial fishermen, concerned about the damage that constant recreational overharvest was doing to the stock, sued NMFS in federal court, seeking a decision that would compel the agency to hold anglers accountable for their repeated overages.
The commercial fishermen won the lawsuit.
The court that decided the case, Guindon v. Pritzker, said that accountability measures (AMs) “can and should be used to address management uncertainty. NMFS must disapprove and return for revision any Council proposal that does not contain adequate AMs.”

It quoted a section of the administrative record which stated that “Considerable uncertainty exists in projecting season estimates given variability in average weights, catch per day, and implementation of incompatible state regulations,” and ultimately found that “NMFS had a statutory duty to…require whatever accountability measures are necessary to constrain catch to the quota.”
NMFS responded by implementing the 20% buffer that the Gulf Council had previously rejected, in order to avoid further recreational overfishing.
Now, management uncertainty may be undermining the effort to manage summer flounder.
Everyone admits that there is a serious management uncertainty issue in the recreational summer flounder fishery. The issue was well-described in a letter sent by James Gilmore, Director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division, to the Chair of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board (Management Board):

“There seems to be a poor relationship between the recreational measures (derived from calculations based on the [Marine Recreational Information Program]) and the performance (as estimated by [such program]). Regional summer flounder recreational management has been in place for the last 3 years (2014-2016). During this period regulations adopted by each region have not changed with the exception of NJ’s portion of Delaware Bay…Under consistent measures there are numerous factors that may influence recreational harvest in a state, with weather and fish availability to anglers among the most important. Harvest estimates are in turn influenced by the actual magnitude of the harvest and the variability inherent in a survey…Under 3 years of consistent regulations from 2014-2016, coastwide harvest estimates in numbers of fish have ranged from 1.6-2.5 million fish, varying as much as 50% between years. When we consider a smaller geographic scale, this variability increases to 66% between years in the CT-NJ region, and an average of 139% at the individual state level. It is difficult to say how much of this variability is due to estimation vs. actual harvest magnitude.”
Given such a high degree of management uncertainty, and considering the court’s decision in Guindon v. Pritzker, one might expect NMFS to establish a recreational ACL somewhat lower than the ABC, in order to create a buffer against such uncertainty.
However, in materials provided to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and Management Board, the MAFMC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee advised that “The Monitoring Committee recommends no reduction from the commercial ACLs to the [Annual Catch Targets] in 2017-2018 to address management uncertainty…The Committee also recommends no reduction from the recreational ACLs to the recreational [Annual Catch Targets] for 2017-2018…”

The lack of a buffer for management uncertainty helped anglers in 2016. Because angling effort was probably underestimated in 2015,harvest estimates for that year were surprisingly low, which allowed managers to keep regulations unchanged in 2016, even though the ACL was reduced by 29%.

However, when effort returned to normal levels in 2016, such regulations did not adequately constrain recreational landings. As a result,anglers overfished, and so will be forced to reduce landings by 40% in 2017, even though the ACL will only decline by 30%.

Such a large one-year reduction has caused a lot of anger in the recreational fishing community, hostility that might have been avoided had managers been willing to admit that the 2015 harvest estimates were probably too low, and incorporated a buffer for management uncertainty into the 2016 regulations.

On the other hand, had such a buffer been adopted for 2016, many members of the recreational fishing community probably would have protested that…
That’s why it’s difficult to properly account for management uncertainty. Fishery managers know that it exists, at some level, in every recreational fishery; they also know that, eventually, it will probably result in anglers overfishing their ACL.
However, because accounting for management uncertainty leads to smaller recreational ACLs, which in turn leads to unhappy recreational fishermen, managers are reluctant to put such constraints on landings even when, as was true with red snapper, anglers regularly overfish their ACLs.
A court decision, such as Guindon v. Pritzker, can force managers’ hands, but managers shouldn’t have to be forced to take needed actions. By incorporating a buffer for management uncertainty into each year’s ACLs, fishery managers better assure that regulations will be consistent from year to year.
Consistent regulations, even if they result in somewhat smaller ACLs, tend to strengthen anglers’ faith in fisheries management, while regulations that change every year, without seeming cause or direction, lead anglers to question managers’ decisions.
Since fishermen are far more likely to obey regulations that they believe in, properly accounting for management uncertainty is an important, yet too often ignored, part of the management process.
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This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/

Sunday, February 5, 2017

ASMFC FAILS STRIPED BASS--AGAIN

Last Thursday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission again demonstrated why it has been unable to restore even a single fish stock over the past twenty years.

In November 2014, ASMFC’ Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board adopted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan, which has the stated purpose of

“reducing [fishing mortality] to a level at or below the target beginning in 2015…conservation of the strong 2011 year class and conservation of spawning fish to enhance the long-term sustainability of the striped bass resource and the fisheries that it supports.  [emphasis added]”
The Addendum was adopted in response to a benchmark stock assessment released in late 2013, which showed that the striped bass stock had experienced repeated episodes of overfishing over the previous 10 years, and that there was a substantial chance that the stock would become overfished if no remedial action was taken.

Addendum IV established a fishing mortality target of 0.180, and a fishing mortality threshold of 0.219, both substantially lower than previous fishing mortality reference points.  In order to reduce fishing mortality to the target level, coastal striped bass harvest was reduced by 25%, compared to harvest in 2013, while harvest in Chesapeake Bay was reduced by 20.5%, compared to harvest in 2012.

The Addendum seemed to have been achieving at least two of its three goals.  A 2016 Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update revealed that fishing mortality in 2015 had been 0.16, marginally below Addendum IV’s target.  A separate analysis performed by ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee found that coastal harvest, which for the most part targets spawning-sized fish, showed significant decreases of 24.9% in the commercial fishery and 47.0% in the recreational fishery. 

However, efforts to protect the 2011 year class fell short, as the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions failed to protect those fish from excessive recreational harvest.  Instead of reducing landings by 20.5%, as explicitly required by Addendum IV, the Chesapeake Bay states allowed recreational harvest to spike up by 58.4%.  According to the 2016 Update,
“Coast-wide recreational harvest was dominated by the 2011 (age 4) and 2010 (age 5) year-classes in 2015…Recreational harvest from the ocean states (includes Delaware Bay) was comprised mostly (70%)  of ages 5-10, while harvest in Chesapeake Bay (MD and VA) was dominated by age 4-8 (70%).”

So if the 2011s, which Addendum IV was supposed to conserve, was one of two year classes that dominated the 2015 harvest, if such 2011s were only an important part of the recreational landings in Chesapeake Bay and if Chesapeake Bay anglers increased their harvest by 58%, instead of reducing it by 20.5%, it’s pretty clear what changes, if any, ought to be made in the striped bass management program.

But if you believed that ASMFC would really try to live up to the conservation goals set out in its management plan, or hold a state accountably for flagrantly ignoring its obligation to a public resource, you haven’t been paying much attention to how things are done at the Commission.

Instead of taking actions that might help to insure the stock’s recovery, the Management Board has moved toward relaxing the restrictions imposed by Addendum IV, even though the 2016 Update let everyone know that spawning stock biomass stands at an estimated 58,853 metric tons, well below the 72,032 metric ton target but just slightly above the 57,626 metric ton threshold that defines an overfished stock.


“The Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board initiated the development of Draft Addendum V to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan (FMP) to consider liberalizing coastwide commercial and recreational regulations.  The Board’s action responds to concerns raised by Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions regarding continued economic hardship endured by its stakeholders since the implementation of Addendum IV and information from the 2016 assessment update indicating fishing mortality is below the target.”
It’s hard to even discuss such a foolish action.

The Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, and particularly Maryland, did not want to see the Management Board adopt Addendum IV in the first place.  At the October 2014 Management Board meeting, all four—Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission—voted against using the best available science, in the form of the fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass reference points determined by the benchmark stock assessment, to manage striped bass.

They then fought doggedly to prevent a 25% harvest reduction, based on that good science, from being imposed in 2015.  First, they tried to stretch the reduction out over three years, then over two and finally asked for and received special treatment in the form of a 20.5% reduction, instead of the full 25% reduction imposed on all other states.

But no good or thoughtful deed goes unpunished, and despite the Management Board's concession on the size of the harvest reduction, at the November 2015 Management Board meeting, Maryland’s marine fisheries director, Michael Luisi, was already complaining about how

“The charter, the recreational and the commercial industry are suffering greatly as a result of the reduction’s we’ve taken,”
and trying to undo the science-based measures of Addendum IV.

We now know that, at least with respect to the recreational fishery, Mr. Luisi's statement was patently false, given that recreational fishermen suffered no reduction at all, but actually substantially increased their landings in 2015.  Even so his tales of hardship have survived all confrontations they have had with the truth, and formed the basis for last Thursday’s motion to begin relaxing striped bass rules.

However, the motion also relied on a memo from the Technical Committee, which found that regulations could be relaxed to allow a harvest about 10% above 2015 levels, without exceeding the F=0.180 target.  With that memo in hand, the Management Board moved forward, to initiate a new Addendum V.

I have to admit that I have read the Technical Committee’s memo a few times, trying to find anything in it which supports such action. 

To begin, without any change in regulations at all, striped bass fishing mortality for 2016 seems likely to fall somewhere between 0.190 and 0.194, depending on how it’s calculated, which is already above the fishing mortality target.

Based on that, alone, Mr. Luisi already has the 10% increase in landings that he’s been looking for.

The Technical Committee calculated that, in order to bring 2015 landings levels up to a 0.180 fishing mortality rate, between 303,800 and 341,186 additional fish could be killed.  However, it appears that anglers landed more than 500,00 more fish in 2016 than they did in 2015, so based on 2016 landings, harvest would have to be reduced by 6% to keep fishing mortality from exceeding its target.

So, somehow, the Technical Committee decided to effectively ignore 2016’s reality in favor of two theoretical calculations.  One of those assumed that the fishing mortality rate would equal 0.18 in both 2016 and 2017; we already know that fishing mortality was at least 0.19 in 2016, so that calculation already rests on a faulty foundation. 

The other calculation assumes actual F for 2015 and 2016, but again assumes that fishing mortality in 2017 will return to the target level.  Why that assumption was made, rather than an assumption that 2016’s rate of 0.19 would prevail, was never explained.

A look at fishing effort data, as estimated by the National Marine Fisheries Service, suggests that just the opposite would be true.

For the five years between 2010 and 2014, the states between Massachusetts and New Jersey, which account for most of the coastal striped bass harvest, averaged about 4.6 million striped bass trips per year (for the purposes of this discussion, a “striped bass trip” is a trip on which striped bass are the primary target). 

In 2015, that number dropped to less than 3.4 million trips.  

However, for just the first ten months of 2016, anglers in those states had already taken about 3.3 million trips; during the period 2010-2016 (excluding 2012, when Hurricane Sandy disrupted late-season angling activity), New York and New Jersey alone averaged more than 500,000 striped bass trips in November and December, suggesting that the actual number of trips made in 2016 was somewhere in excess of 3.8 million.  (It should be noted that the Technical Committee did try to estimate November/December 2016 landings when calculating 2016 fishing mortality.)

Thus, it is likely that 2015 effort and landings estimates were well below average, and that as a result, 2015 provides a poor baseline to use in predicting future recreational striped bass landings.  The coast will not always make up for the excesses in Chesapeake Bay.  If Addendum 5 is ultimately adopted, such landings could well approach or exceed the threshold, and cause overfishing to occur.

That is particularly true because, as the Technical Committee noted in its recent memo to the Management Board,

“although the assessment is very good, it may not be able to distinguish between fishing mortality point estimates of 0.16 and 0.18.  In other words, the upper and lower bounds of the confidence intervals for both F estimates would essentially overlap.”
Which means that the fishing mortality rate in 2015 may already have been 0.18, and that no underage ever occurred.

And that demonstrates the essential weakness of the ASMFC system.  

Unlike federal fisheries managers, which are required by law to employ the best available science, avoid overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks in a timely fashion, state managers, acting through ASMFC, know no such constraints.

If a manger down in Maryland wants to live a lie, and insist that his recreational fishermen have “suffered” as a result of reductions that never occurred, and if he chooses to halt the recovery of the striped bass stock, and risk pushing that stock down to “overfished” status merely to gain a transient economic advantage for a handful of watermen in his state, he’s free to do so, if he can convince the rest of the Management Board to go along.

Hopefully, the Management Board will, in the end, not be convinced, and will stop the Addendum V process.

However, hope rarely accomplishes much without people working to turn such hopes into reality.  

Right now, there is little to do but stay informed, and let fellow anglers know that this problem has arisen.  But at some point before the May ASMFC meeting, we should get a look at the draft Addendum V.

When we do, we will have to do just what we did when Addendum IV came out—let our state representatives to ASMFC know how we feel.  

We’ll have to go to the hearings, make our thoughts known, and make it clear that we are not willing to let the progress already wrought by Addendum IV be squandered.

The public is entitled to a healthy and fully recovered striped bass stock.