Sunday, August 9, 2020

MENHADEN ERPS: A WATERSHED FOR FORAGE FISH MANAGEMENT?

Last Wednesday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board agreed to adopt “environmental reference points” to govern menhaden management.  Wednesday’s actions are arguably the conclusion of a twenty-five year long battle to wrest menhaden management away from the industrial menhaden fishery and hand it over to professional fishery managers who will now manage menhaden primarily as a forage fish, emphasizing its role in coastal ecosystems, rather than as feed stock for a reduction industry that converts menhaden into fish meal, oils and other products.

Congratulations go out to the many conservation groups, angling organizations, and private citizens who gritted it out and saw this fight through to what will hopefully be its desired end.  I got involved with menhaden in the late 1990s and know that there were people already engaged in the debate for years before that.

Thanks go out to the professional fishery managers and others who sit on the Management Board and made this happen, to the scientists on the ASMFC’s staff and elsewhere who prepared the stock assessments and other analysis, and to everyone else who contributed their time and their knowledge to the effort.  That includes Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and his staff, who refused to let the Virginia Legislature look the other way while Omega Protein exceeded the ASMFC’s cap on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay, and to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and his natural resources staff, who looked beyond Virginia’s parochial interests in the reduction fishery to menhaden’s importance to all of the states on the coast.

Having said that, what does last week’s menhaden decision really mean, and what does if portend for the management of other forage species?

That is an interesting question.

The ecological reference points adopted for menhaden tie the target menhaden biomass, and target fishing mortality rate for menhaden, to the biomass of menhaden that will maintain striped bass at its target females spawning stock biomass.  Studies indicated that striped bass, along with certain birds, were the species most sensitive to menhaden abundance, so biologists believe that a menhaden biomass that will support the striped bass will also be adequate to support bluefish, weakfish and spiny dogfish at their target levels.

In some ways, the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board’s actions were notable, because Atlantic menhaden support one of the largest commercial fisheries in the nation; ecological reference points have the potential of limiting that fishery’s landings.

But at the same time, the current estimated fishing mortality rate for Atlantic menhaden is slightly below the environmental reference points’ fishing mortality target, so no cuts in menhaden landings would currently be required (that could change in October, when managers will set the 2021 annual catch limit, although there is no reason to believe that a harvest reduction is currently on the table).

Another factor that probably militated in favor of the environmental reference points was that most of the commercial Atlantic menhaden fishery is concentrated in Virginia.  There are menhaden fisheries in other states, but Virginia gets nearly 80 percent of the quota; New Jersey, which receives slightly less than 11 percent of the quota, sits in a very distant second place.  The other 9 percent or so is shared by fourteen different jurisdictions, making it very easy for the representatives of those jurisdictions to listen to the science and their constituents’ comments, and vote for ecological reference points.  They could do so with the confidence that their local fishermen probably wouldn’t be hurt by such vote and, if a few more menhaden were needed, they could probably shave them off Virginia’s quota.

That’s not necessarily true of other forage species, and in that regard, the debate leading up to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment is instructive.  In preparing that amendment, the Mid-Atlantic Council recognized that

“Forage fish are small fish and invertebrates that feed on smaller marine organisms such as plankton and are in turn eaten by many species of fish, sea birds, and marine mammals.  Forage species play an important role in sustaining the productivity and structure of marine ecosystems by facilitating the transfer of energy from the lowest level of the food chain to higher levels.”

That all sounds good, but it should be noted that the Unmanaged Forage amendment, both as it was adopted and as it exists today, largely protects only unfished, as well as unmanaged, forage species.  There was considerable debate over including chub mackerel, a species that only began to see significant Mid-Atlantic landings in 2013.

Even though the mackerel weren’t a traditional commercial target in the region, the fact that a fishery was beginning to develop was enough to make their inclusion in the Unmanaged Forage amendment a temporary one; a recent amendment has included chub mackerel as a species covered by the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan.

So chub mackerel are forage fish, and Atlantic mackerel, squid, and butterfish are forage fish too, but all of them support lucrative commercial fisheries that operate out of a number of different states, so you probably won’t see any of them being managed for their value as forage at any time soon.

Instead, what you’ll probably see, in the case of forage fish that support significant fisheries, are occasional measures to avoid localized depletion of particular forage species, when fishermen become convinced that a lack of forage is contributing to a lack of larger, more valuable fish.  The New England Fishery Management Council’s proposed Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan is an example of that approach, where

“NOAA Fisheries proposes regulations to implement Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan.  The New England Fishery Management Council developed Amendment 8 to specify a long-term acceptable biological catch control rule for Atlantic herring and address localized depletion and user group conflict.  This amendment would establish an acceptable biological catch control rule for Atlantic herring that accounts for herring’s role in the ecosystem and prohibit midwater trawling in inshore federal waters from the U.S./Canada border to the Rhode Island/Connecticut border.  Amendment 8 is intended to support sustainable management of the herring resource and help ensure that herring is available to minimize possible detrimental impacts on predators of herring and associated socioeconomic impacts on other user groups.”

That’s not as bold a step toward ecosystem management as the ASMFC took with Atlantic menhaden, but it’s still a reasonable step in the right direction.

So, right now, it looks like the ASMFC’s adoption of ecological reference points was a big win for the conservation community, although we won’t know for certain just how big a win it was until the ASMFC’s October meeting, when the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board sets the annual catch limit for 2021. 

If it sets that catch limit at or below the fishing mortality target, the celebrations can really begin.  On the other hand, if it decides to be “flexible,” as the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, an association that includes the largest menhaden harvesters, urges, and allows fishing mortality to exceed the target level, we’ll know that there is still more work to be done.

Thus, newspaper articles which declare that

Menhaden decision marks a new era in Atlantic fisheries management

are exaggerating the impact of the ASMFC’s actions.  While it certainly marked a new era in Atlantic menhaden management, its impact on Atlantic fisheries management will probably be somewhat less.

But that shouldn’t detract from our enthusiasm over the ASMFC’s actions.  The ASMFC clearly took the right action based on the science and based on its own five-year plan, which supports a move toward ecosystem-based management.

Mackerel, herring and butterfish might not benefit from the ASMFC’s actions.

But menhaden, and its predators, most certainly will.

 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

ASMFC'S UPCOMING STRIPED BASS AMENDMENT: GET READY FOR A TOUGH FIGHT

Last Tuesday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board voted, 15-1 (New York was the only state opposed) to begin a new amendment to the striped bass management plan.

The wording of the motion, which was made by Maryland’s Michael Luisi, was

I move to initiate an Amendment to the Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan focused on the following management topics: 1) Fishery Goals and Objectives; 2) Stock Rebuilding/Timeframe; 3) Management Triggers; 4) Biological Reference Points; 5) Regional Management (Recreational Measures, Coastal and Producer Areas, Regional Reference Points); 6) Recreational Dead Discards; 7) Conservation Equivalency; 8) Recreational Accountability; and 9) Coastal Commercial Quota Allocation.  Each of these topics will be presented in a Public Information Document in order to solicit stakeholder comment focused on prioritizing the importance of each topic for continued development and inclusion in the Amendment.”

The motion touches on just about every important aspect of striped bass management, and relies heavily upon the ASMFC Work Group document that I discussed a week ago.  Luisi argued that everything should be considered in a Public Information Document, and that the Management Board should then be guided by the comment that the public makes.

That all sounds good, until you realize a few things:

First, the Management Board gets to decide on the options that receive comment, and how those options are worded. 

It can, if it chooses, leave questions completely open, and say things such as “What do you want the striped bass stock to look like in the future,” and “What is more important to you, having large numbers of striped bass, having large striped bass, or being able to harvest more striped bass?”

It can also offer specific options, asking whether the reference points used to gauge the health of the stock (fishing mortality target and threshold, and female spawning stock biomass target and threshold) should be based on 1995, when the stock was declared recovered, on 1993, when the female spawning stock biomass was smaller but still produced a strong year class, or on various models that have not yet passed peer review, but might allow for a bigger kill in the Chesapeake Bay, which is something that Luisi is always trying to achieve.

But without going into great detail on the risk each set of reference points might pose to the long-term health of the striped bass stock, the questions themselves could be steering the comments received from a public that is not completely informed.

A number of Management Board members expressed a concern that COVID could impact the public input process, with Dr. Michael Armstrong, the Massachusetts fishery manager, expressing his view that on-line hearings don’t work out very well, and that nothing should go out to the public for another year or so, when holding in-person hearings is less likely to be an issue. 

It’s a valid concern, for no one knows how COVID could impact the public hearing process.  Will people feel more comfortable testifying on-line rather than in person, with so many commenting that they inadvertently jam up the process, and so impact other people’s ability to be heard?  Will those who don’t like some aspect of striped bass management—whether on the pro-conservation or pro-harvest side—intentionally try to interfere with the process, perhaps by getting so many people to sign on that the hearing can’t be held at all ?

Some states may have regulations preventing large gatherings, making hearings in those venues effectively impossible.  In other states, where hearings may be held, will the comment be biased because those who don’t believe the medical advice on COVID are largely congruent with those who don’t believe the scientific advice on striped bass, so they will come out to present their positions while the more scientifically literate, and perhaps more conservation-oriented, stakeholders stay home?

And will the Management Board consider that when crafting the new amendment, or will it take all comment at face value, without considering its source?

We might have reason to worry, because the New Jersey reps were pushing hard to hold virtual hearings, and we know how they always come out with respect to bass conservation…

But the big worry is that, based on the Work Group report, the process appears to be stacked against striped bass conservation.  The three “themes” that emerged from the Work Group process were management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency.  None of those things are particularly good tools for effective, adaptive management in the face of a troubled striped bass population.

The striped bass has already suffered from too much management stability, in situations that saw the Management Board unwilling to adopt regulations in response to a declining biomass.  Consider the words of Tom Fote, New Jersey’s Governor’s Appointee, at the November 2011 Management Board meeting, after a stock assessment update informed the Management Board that the stock would become overfished by 2017.

“…how can I be a hypocrite and go out to my public in New Jersey and basically say, oh, by the way, we’ve been doing so great with striped bass and there is really no—we haven’t hit any of the [management] triggers [in the fishery management plan that require Management Board action if fishing mortality is too high and/or the striped bass biomass is too low] and now I’m going to reduce your catch by 40 percent.”

If I was sitting in his place, I’d consider a warning that the stock would become overfished a call for corrective action, but even giving Fote the benefit of the doubt, and agreeing that no management document then required the Management Board to take action, look at his reaction in May 2014, after the 2013 benchmark stock assessment informed the Management Board that the fishing mortality rate had been over target for a number of years, and that the female spawning stock biomass was below target in some of those years as well, conditions that tripped management triggers calling for both ending overfishing within one year and rebuilding the stock within ten.

“At 33 percent or whatever we’re going to wind up as a reduction here, at that level is a huge amount of reduction in one year.  I mean, we have a recreational fishery and a commercial fishery that are in trouble up and down the coast, between the storms and between everything else that is affecting them, the price of gas and everything else—and there is a social and economic impact to do this.

“…I’m looking at this and if we want to do something, let’s do in incrementally because two years from now when the regression analysis says we’re not even close to mortality, I don’t have to sit here and say I told you so.”

So in 2011, he argued against adopting no regulations because no management triggers were tripped, and in 2014, after two management measures were tripped, he was still trying to prevent, or at least slow down, the adoption of needed conservation measures.  Which could lead one to believe that management triggers were never the real issue.

And, of course, we now know that after a few years had passed, and a new scientific analysis came out, the 2018 benchmark stock assessment didn’t justify Fote’s position, but instead found that things were worse than believed, and that the stock was both overfished and experiencing overfishing, which was a clear indication that, far from being unnecessary, the management measures that Fote opposed in 2014 weren’t strict enough.

But that didn’t faze Fote, for even after the benchmark assessment declared the stock to be both overfished and subject to overfishing, and so tripped yet two more management triggers, he kept fighting management measures, saying

“I’ve also been down this road before, as you made me change my slot limit years ago, when I basically go for a regulation and four years down the road, three years we find we were not in as bad shape as we thought we were.   I think there were a lot more reasons [other than a dearth of striped bass] why we saw a 25 percent reduction [in recreational striped bass landings] in 2018; if that’s the number.  I think that is going to continue because of the drop off of anglers going out, and reduction of trips again.  I would really think it’s important so we can justify, because if people see we have a 25 percent reduction when we need a 17, we average it out between [20]16, [20]17, and [20]18.  It will smooth it out some and we should have an idea with the ’18…”

The problem is that there is an institutionalized reluctance to reduce harvest on the Management Board and throughout the ASMFC.  Fote may be one of the loudest and most outspoken opponents of needed, science based management measures, but there are plenty of others who agree with his general philosophy.  That was, unfortunately demonstrated by the fact that, although four separate management triggers were tripped since the 2013 benchmark assessment was released, the Management Board completely ignored two of them; while it did adopt the minimum measures needed to bring fishing mortality down to target, it completely ignored the requirements to rebuild the spawning stock biomass.

So if the new amendment emphasizes even more regulatory stability and flexibility, you can imagine how little they’ll do to assure the striped bass stock’s long-term health.  As Capt. John McMurray, New York’s Legislative Proxy, noted at Monday’s preliminary Management Board meeting, if “flexibility” means ignoring the science, permitting overfishing and not rebuilding overfished stocks, most striped bass anglers are against it.

But that doesn’t mean that we won’t see rebuilding deadlines and management triggers diluted, and perhaps the spawning stock biomass target lowered, in the name of “flexibility,” because Fote isn’t the only Management Board member out there who wants to see a bigger kill, and the new amendment is their only vehicle to achieve that goal.

There also seems to be a strong sentiment on the Management Board to limit catch and release.

Yes, you heard that right.  Catch and release, or at least the mortality that accompany releases, was seen as the number one issue that the Management Board needs to address. 

Quite honestly, there is a lot of release mortality; the latest benchmark assessment revealed that it actually exceeds the mortality from recreational landings.  But that’s what’s going to happen when anglers release more than 90% of the striped bass that they catch; harvest declines, and release mortality increases.  Yet, even though a dead fish is a dead fish, and a bass that succumbs to release mortality is no more dead, and does no more harm to the stock, then one that is whacked on the head and tossed into a cooler, release mortality is seen by yield-oriented fisheries managers as a far greater “problem” then fish tossed in a box.

Capt. McMurray tried to explain that in a fishery that is 90% recreational, and with a 90%-plus recreational release rate, release mortality is going to seem high, but that managers should learn from other primarily catch-and-release fisheries, such as bonefish and tarpon, where release mortality is probably close to 100% of all fishing mortality. 

Predictably, Fote took umbrage at that, and characterized the striped bass fishery as catch-and-harvest, but whined that because catch-and-release kills so many fish, it leads to more restrictive regulations and prevents kill-oriented anglers from binging more fish home.

Fote’s colleague, Adam Nowalsky, New Jersey’s Legislative Proxy, jumped on the same argument, ignoring the intent of Capt. McMurray’s point that other jurisdictions have learned to manage primarily recreational, primarily catch-and-release fisheries.  He acknowledged that the data supported Capt. McMurray, but then made a tangential argument that tarpon and bonefish weren’t food fish, while the striped bass is.  So, perhaps, Capt. McMurray should have used permit, or Atlantic salmon, or the trout found in no-kill waters to make his point, because it was a valid one—fisheries should be managed for their primary uses, which in the case of striped bass is recreation.

One size—based on yield, does not fit all.

But that’s too novel a concept for most of the Management Board to grasp.

Thus, conservation-minded anglers are going to have their work cut out for them on the new amendment.  States such as Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware, along with the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, with be fighting for a bigger kill and a smaller biomass, for more flexibility and less science-based management. 

Other states will support conservation, but always with caveats.  Catch and release will likely be in many of their sights.

And complicating the entire process, the impacts of COVID-19, both with respect to data and to public input, will make informed comment more difficult.

This will likely be the last big striped bass fight of my lifetime, and the lifetimes of my contemporaries.  I’ll do what I can to win it, but understand that I’ll largely be fighting for to have a healthy striped bass stock in someone else’s future, and not in mine.

And I’ll know as I do so that there will also be folks on the other side, who don’t care if your grandkids ever see a striped bass, so long as they get their payout now.

How each of us responds to the coming challenge will likely determine who prevails.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

STRIPED BASS: WHAT DOES MANAGEMENT "SUCCESS" LOOK LIKE?

In last Thursday’s edition of One Angler’s Voyage, I mentioned that I almost choked when I read the report of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Work Group, and learned that the Work Group believed that

“In the post-moratorium era (ending 1990), the management of Atlantic striped bass has largely been a story of success.”

After all, the last benchmark stock assessment, which was officially released early last year, indicated that the stock is overfished, and that overfishing has been occurring for quite a few years.

In addition, recreational fishing effort has been heading steadily downhill, along with striped bass abundance.  According to the most recent benchmark assessment,

“Female [spawning stock biomass] started out at low levels and increased steadily through the late-1980s and 1990s, peaking at 113,602 mt (250 million pounds) in 2003 before beginning to gradually decline; the decline became sharper in 2012.  Female [spawning stock biomass] was at 68,476 mt (151 million pounds) in 2017, below the [spawning stock biomass] threshold of 91,436 mt (202 million pounds).”

During the same time period, recreational fishing effort increased from about 1.3 million directed trips in 1985, when the rebuilding effort began, to nearly 2.4 million trips in 1989, when the ASMFC determined that the stock was recovering, to more than 13 million trips—ten times the 1985 figure—in 1985, when the stock was declared fully recovered.  As the stock continued to grow, effort continued to increase, hitting 22 million when the spawning stock biomass peaked in 2003, and peaking at more than 26 million trips in 2008, when the spawning stock biomass had already begun to decline, but large fish from the big 1993 and 1996 year classes were abundant.

After that, due to declining abundance, effort began to tail off quickly, falling to 22 million trips in 2012 and 17 million in 2017.

So how is it possible for the Work Group to claim that subjecting a once-healthy stock to overfishing and allowing it to become overfished once again, which resulted in a steep decline in angling effort and the concomitant loss of the economic benefits associated with millions of foregone fishing trips, a success?

The Work Group seems to believe that management was successful because

“The species was declared recovered in 1995 and the fishery experienced relative stability well into the 2000s.”

But then, the Work Group notes,

“several years of poor recruitment coupled with declining spawning stock biomass beginning around 2006 raised concerns, and resulted in the implementation of coastwide reductions to fishing mortality in 2015 through Addendum IV to the Interstate Fisheries Management Plan (FMP).  More recently, concerns for the well-being of the stock have been brought forward after the 2018 benchmark stock assessment indicated the stock was overfished and overfishing was occurring.  The adoption of Addendum VI to the interstate FMP further reduced fishing mortality coastwide.”

That’s the Work Group’s argument for striped bass management “largely being a story of success.”

So is the Work Group right?  Or are they merely whistling as they pass by the graveyard, trying to ignore the fact that the current state of the striped bass stock can be viewed as a management failure?

Let’s take a look at each of the claims, and see how things stack up.

We ought to begin by recognizing that the ten years beginning in 1985, when Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was adopted, and ending in 1995, when the striped bass stock was declared fully recovered, really was an example of successful fishery management.

I’ll go even further, and declare that the ASMFC’s rebuilding of the once-collapsed striped bass stock in the late 1980s and early 1990s was arguably the greatest saltwater fishery management success ever witnessed on the East Coast, perhaps in the United States, and possibly even anywhere in the world.  The ASMFC’s adoption of a rigorous management plan intended to protect the relatively robust 1982 year class, and all other subsequent year classes, until the spawning stock biomass could be restored is a textbook example of the right way to recover a collapsed fish stock, and nurture it back to health.

After that, though, any signs of a management success are very hard to find.

I say that based on the presumption that if improvement in the stock is to be declared a management success, then that improvement must be linked to a particular management action.  And between the time when Amendment 5 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, adopted in 1995, substantially relaxed fishery management measures in response to the stock’s recovery, and 2015, when Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass imposed more restrictive regulations that attempted to reduce fishing mortality by 25%, managers took no significant actions that were intended to increase striped bass abundance, although it did adopt a few measures intended to increase striped bass harvest.

If we look at that period, we find that, in Amendment 5, ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board adopted a coastal recreational bag limit of 2 fish, and a coastal size limit of 28 inches (the previous recreational limits were 1 fish at 34 inches); in so-called “producer areas,” where striped bass spawned, the recreational bag limit was set at 1 fish that was required to be at least 20 inches long.  The commercial fishery was managed by the same size limits, and by initial quotas that the Management Board could change, as it deemed appropriate, to match a change in stock size.

During the period between 1995, when the stock was declared recovered, and 2003, when the female spawning period peaked, the Management Board adopted no significant new management actions, although Addendum IV to Amendment 5 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Striped Bass, adopted in 1998 in an effort to increase the number of larger females in the spawning stock, did require all states to adopt regulations intended to reduce the landings of bass 8 years and older by 14%, beginning in the 2000 season.  However, states that had maintained regulations more restrictive than those mandated by Amendment 5, as a number did at that time, were given a “credit” for their existing rules, and could reduce landings of older fish by a smaller amount, and perhaps not be required to reduce landings at all.

That being the case, it is difficult to give fishery managers credit for any “success” connected with the big 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2003 year classes that provided an abundance of striped bass to the recreational and commercial fisheries, and caused recreational effort to spike.  As Dr. Michael Armstrong, Assistant Director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and recent Chair of the Management Board, noted in a July webinar sponsored by the American Sportfishing Association,

“the primary cause [of variation in striped bass year classes] is…the water regime in Chesapeake Bay.  When you have flood springs, you get bad recruitment. When you get really dry springs, you get bad recruitment.  When you get nice cool, wettish springs, you get big year classes…

“We have to husband the big year classes along the best we can.  The only way to do that is to keep fishing mortality low.”

So it’s nature, and not fisheries managers, who can take credit for good year classes and a real abundance of bass.

Where management measures are needed is after those “flood springs” and “really dry springs,” where management measures are needed to “husband the big year classes” and “keep fishing mortality low.”

After 2003, striped bass entered a seven-year stretch of largely below-average recruitment.  Was striped bass management a success during those years?  

Again, let’s look at the record.

The coastal recreational bag and size limit remained unchanged until 2015.  However, Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, adopted in 2003, removed the “producer area” designation from the Hudson River and Delaware Bay, requiring them to be governed by the coastal limits, while allowing Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions to adopt a smaller, 19-inch size limit provided that they also adopted a lower fishing mortality target, F=0.27 rather than the 0.30 that applied on the coast.  Amendment 6 also increased the overall commercial quota, setting it at 100% of each jurisdiction’s landings during the 1972-1979 base period.

While Amendment 6 did not lead to significantly increased recreational landings, it did cause commercial landings to jump, increasing overall fishing mortality just as the female spawning stock began its decline.  Then, beginning in 2007, as recruitment declined and the spawning stock continued to shrink slowly, the Management Board approved a series of exceptions to the management plan, each of which increased fishing mortality by a small amount.

In August 2007, it permitted Maryland to open a brief spring catch-and-keep fishery on the Susquehanna Flats, a designated spawning area that had previously been protected.  In October, it eliminated the quota in Maryland’s so-called spring “trophy” fishery, which targets mature female bass that exit the spawning rivers; Maryland wanted the change because its anglers had exceeded the quota in previous years.

In October 2008, it approved a proposal that would allow the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania to harvest what were technically undersized fish—bass between 20 and 26 inches long—in their sections of the Delaware River, an action which caused New Hampshire Legislative Appointee Dennis Abbott to remark that

“To me what is going on is, as I would term it, is we’re dealing with striped bass management as becoming death by thousand cuts.  We keep adding little things to our management plan; we can do this in one place and we can do things in another place, and it doesn’t really affect overfishing…

“Though I appreciate what Pennsylvania and Delaware are trying to do to have a better opportunity, we’re really going off the rails here.  When we adopted a coast-wide size limit of 28 inches and 18 inches for the producer areas, that is what we said but we keep weakening that.  I just think that it’s the wrong way to go because in a lot of circles people think that striped bass fishing is not as good as it was, and continuing as a management board to do these things is not going in the right direction.”

Mr. Abbott’s statement was one of the first words warning that problems lie ahead, but it was ignored by virtually all of the Management Board.

At its very next meeting, in February 2009, despite low recruitment and a declining stock, the Management Board actually initiated an addendum that would have increased the commercial quota by as much as 50%, and so increased overall fishing mortality by a lesser amount, although that addendum, at least, was ultimately defeated.

The Management Board’s next test, and next opportunity to pursue a successful management regime, came early in 2011, after an update to the stock assessment warned that

“…Abundance and exploitable biomass of ages 8+ are expected to decline regardless of the recruitment scenario.  Female [spawning stock biomass] will fall slightly below the threshold by 2017 regardless of the recruitment scenario  [emphasis added]”

In other words, if the Management Board did nothing, the striped bass would probably become overfished by the year 2017.

And so the Management Board did…nothing.

At first, the Management Board thought about initiating a new addendum to reduce fishing mortality, but in the end, perhaps buoyed by a good 2011 year class in Maryland, it decided that, despite the best available science saying otherwise, that striped bass represented “a green light fishery,” and allowed the spawning stock biomass to continue its downhill slide.

A year later, it got a wakeup call when the 2013 stockassessment advised that the stock was declining, with fishing mortality abovethe target level, and female spawning stock biomass below the biomasstarget.  That combination of factors tripped two “management triggers” in Amendment 6, one of which required the Management Board to reduce fishing mortality to or below target within one year, and the other requiring it to initiate a 10-year rebuilding program.

As noted in the Work Group report, the Management Board adopted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 in order to reduce fishing mortality; what the Working Group failed to mention is that the Board completely ignored its duty to begin a rebuilding plan.  And even Addendum IV was a half-hearted affair.

Reducing fishing mortality to the target level within 1 year required a 25% reduction in overall F.  However, the Chesapeake jurisdictions whined and cried, trying toconvince the Management Board to ignore the 1 year deadline in Amendment 6, andinstead phase in mortality reductions over 3 years.  When that didn’t work, they successfully petitioned the Management Board to reduce fishing mortality in the Bay by just 20.5% compared to 2012, rather than the 25% compared to 2013 that was applicable everywhere else.

And anglers in Chesapeake Bay, most notably in Maryland, failed to reduce their fishing mortality at all.  Instead, in 2015, they increased striped bass fishing mortality by more than 50%.  And they didn’t stop there.  Maryland anglers killed an estimated 716, 742 striped bass in 2012.  In 2015, that number was 1,107,991, which increased to 1,545,086 in 2016, 1,091,614 in 2017, 993,304 in 2018 and 764,137 in 2019. 

The Management Board did nothing to rein in such landings and require Maryland to achieve a 20.5% reduction in fishing mortality.  That failure was particularly disturbing given that one of the purposes of Addendum IV was to preserve the big 2011 year class until it could enter the spawning stock, and much of Maryland’s recreational landings, particularly in 2015, were 2011s.

So much for the need to “husband the big year classes…”

The failure to adopt a rebuilding plan back in 2014, coupled with a failure to enforce the fishing mortality cuts mandated by Addendum IV, undoubtedly contributed to the most recent benchmark assessment’s finding that the striped bass stock was overfished and subject to overfishing.

Granted, new recreational catch and effort estimates, unavailable prior to 2017, were also a big part of the picture, so the Management Board can legitimately argue that, without those recreational figures, it couldn’t have known how bad things really were. 

Yet having said that, as far back as 2011, they knew that an overfished stock was on the horizon, so their lack of action to prevent that can hardly be justified.

But once they knew, without doubt, that the stock was overfished, what did the Management Board do to fix things? 

Not too much, except, perhaps, to reprise 2014.  Once again, they had an obligation to end overfishing and rebuild the overfished stock.

And, once again, they made a half-hearted effort to end overfishing, adopting Amendment VI, which has a less than 50% probability of succeeding. 

And, once again, they completely ignored their duty to rebuild the stock.

So what, then, does the Work Group, and perhaps the Management Board, think that successful striped bass management looks like?

Is success raising fishing mortality, if just by a little, in the face of declining recruitment and a spawning stock decline?

Is success ignoring the best available science, when it advises that an overfished stock lies just six years down the road, if no action to prevent it is taken?

Is success failing to hold states to their obligations under the management plan, or allowing them to adopt “conservation equivalent” measures that undermine the overall success of the plan?

Is success ignoring the clear mandates of your own management plan, and making no effort to timely rebuild the stock, even though you committed to do so?

Is success adopting an addendum to the management plan that’s more likely to fail than succeed?

Or is success allowing, through your own inaction, a once fully-recovered stock to become overfished once again?

If success is any or all of those things, then yes, the Work Group is right, and “the management of striped bass [over the past three decades] has largely been a story of success.”

But if success means maintaining the striped bass stock at sustainable levels, managing around difficulties such as sub-par recruitment and excessive fishing mortality, providing an abundance of fish that fishermen from North Carolina and Maine can enjoy, and that both commercial and recreational fishermen can exploit without threating the stock’s long-term prospects, then the history of striped bass management since 1995—and particularly in the last decade—is a story of startling failure.

But no, not of failure.

For to fail, as to succeed, one most take action.

The history of striped bass for the past thirty years is more a story of stasis, of a Management Board too paralyzed, to afraid, and/or too unwilling to act, which by its inaction has failed to live up to its commitments and its duty not only to striped bass fishermen, but to the striped bass itself.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Thursday, July 30, 2020

ASMFC WORK GROUP REPORT BODES ILL FOR STRIPED BASS

At the August 2019 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, a motion was put on the table to initiate a new amendment to the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan.

The vote on that motion has been postponed several times, for various reasons, but is expected to occur when the Management Board meets on August 4.

In order to facilitate the amendment process—because it is a foregone conclusion that the motion will receive broad support—the Management Board assembled a Work Group of its members to decide on topics to be addressed in the new amendment.

Thus, I was eager to see what sort of recommendations the Work Group would come up with, because whatever the proposed new amendment looks like, it will probably govern how striped bass are managed for the rest of my angling life, and very possibly the rest of my actual life as well.

The Work Group report has now been released and, unfortunately, if some of its recommendations become part of the new amendment, what remains of a viable striped bass fishery probably won't last much longer than I do.

What became very clear as I reads the Work Group report is that fisheries managers still don’t comprehend the nature of the striped bass fishery.

A primarily recreational fishery, that sees most anglers fishing for pure recreation and not for meat, is a fishery that ought to be managed to maximize an abundance of fish in the water, and not a pile of dead fish on the dock.  Yet the Management Board remains focused on yield; abundance does not appear to be a major concern.

The Work Group’s biases, and its blindness to the realities of the recreational striped bass fishery, are evidenced throughout the report.

“In the post moratorium era (ending 1990), the management of Atlantic striped bass has largely been a story of success."

Success?

Really?

Has anyone noticed that the last benchmarks stock assessment found that the stock was both overfished and subject to overfishing?

If that’s anyone’s definition of success, I hope those folks aren’t in the military, or surgeons, or managing anyone’s money, because that sort of “success” could leave a lot of people either dead broke or just plain dead.

It didn’t do the bass very much good, either.

If you actually look at the last three decades of striped bass management, it’s hard to call anything that the Management Board did a “success,” largely because the Management Board hardly did anything at all.

The Management Board’s real success came during the late 1980s, after it adopted Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.

After that amendment lead to a rebuilt stock in 1995, the Management Board more or less got lucky, with favorable environmental conditions leading to very strong year classes in 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2003.  It could sit on its hands and bask in the glow of a healthy stock for more than a decade.

But when recruitment began to decline after 2004, the Management Board kept sitting on its hands, even as the female spawning stock biomass began to decline as well. 

It called a stock on its way to becoming overfished "a green light fishery."

When the 2012 stock assessment indicated that the stock wasn't in a good place, and that more restrictive measures were needed, the Management Board made a modest effort to reduce fishing mortality, but failed to adopt a 10-year rebuilding plan, even though Amendment 6 to the management plan required it to do

After the most recent benchmark stock assessment found the stock to be both overfished and subject to overfishing, that scenario replayed itself once again.

If that’s considered “a story of success” at the ASMFC, it’s easy to understand why they haven’t managed to rebuild, and then maintain, a single fish stock under their care in the past 75-plus years.

And things in the Work Group report went downhill from there.

It turns out that the Work Group is somewhat obsessed with what it called “management stability;” that is, putting regulations in place and then not changing them for an extended period of time.

“The [Work Group] noted that management stability should be thought of as a two-way street where management stays the same in good and bad years (i.e., avoid knee-jerk reactions if fishing mortality (F) goes above or below target for 1 year).”

Since Management Trigger 3 in Amendment 6 already requires at least two years of F above target, along with a below-target biomass, before action is taken, the point of that statement isn’t completely clear.

“There was strong support from [Work Group] members to revisit the management triggers.

I have to admit that when I read that one, I almost fell off the couch.

“The triggers require constant change?”

That’s a total break from reality.

And the Management Board ignored triggers 2 and 4 anyway...

Two management changes over the course of 17 years hardly constitutes “constant change.”

Perhaps just one management trigger that suggests “flexible” action once the stock has completely collapsed?

Yet that aversion to regulatory change—the same aversion that led us to an overfished stock today—colors the Work Group’s approach to matters as critical as rebuilding the striped bass stock.

“The [Work Group] began its discussion with a question regarding the evaluation of management success:

Uncertainty is no stranger to the fishery management process; every management body, state, regional, or federal, deals with uncertainty every day.

But if you’re dedicated to “management stability,” and basically want to sit on your hands for a decade or so, regardless of what’s happening to the stock, then go out for a few beers after the Management Board meeting and toast to your great “success,” that’s probably not an attractive option.

The basic problem is, at it so often is at the ASMFC, that the Work Group places more emphasis on how their actions impact people than they do on how they impact the fish that the ASMFC is entrusted to manage.

That comes through in comments like

“the new [Marine Recreational Information Program] numbers changed the Commission’s understanding of stock status, and given the shift in magnitude of removals, the degree of required action and its effects on stakeholders should be considered carefully.”

It would make more sense for a fisheries manager to be primarily concerned on the effects of

The Work Group also apparently believes that

“a potential goal of the Striped Bass [fishery management plan] should be to improve relationships between the various groups, whether that be between the commercial or recreational sectors or between the coastal states and the Chesapeake Bay region.”

How about just rebuilding the stock to true abundance?

But that’s the sort of insight that has apparently not yet taken hold among striped bass managers.

I’m trying to keep this essay from going to long, and strongly suggest that you read the entire Work Group report for yourself; you can find it at http://www.asmfc.org/files/Meetings/2020SummerMeeting/AtlanticStripedBassBoardSupplemental.pdf

But before I close, I have to note that no better proof of the Work Group being almost completely disconnected from the realities of the recreational, surf and private boat, catch and release fishery that is responsible for at least 80% of all striped bass fishing mortality than its approach to release mortality, something that the Work Group named the number one priority for any new amendment.

“Multiple members of the [Work Group] indicated that recreational dead discards may be the single most important issue at this time, and addressing (or reducing discards) is the most important action that can be taken going forward.

But why?

Could you imagine, with respect to another fishery, a manager saying “Recreational landings [and/or commercial landings] accounted for 80% of the fishing mortality, and there is a critical need to address this issue?”

I couldn’t.

What the members of the Work Group, and of the Management Board, can’t seem to get their mind around is that, in a primarily catch and release fishery, much if not most of the fishing mortality is going to come from release mortality, because people aren’t taking many fish home.

And it doesn’t matter, so long as overall fishing mortality remains within sustainable parameters.  

Yes, we should try to do all we can to assure that a released fish will survive.

But to the fish themselves, dead is dead.

Consider the recreational fishery for an essentially inedible (at least for most people) species such as tarpon or bonefish. managers see nothing wrong with that.is

But because the Management Board, and for that matter, most saltwater fisheries managers, are laser-focused on harvest, the idea of accepting the discard mortality that necessarily accompanies catch and release is very, very foreign.

That’s a mindset that isn’t going to change any time soon, and it is symptomatic of the biggest problem that conservation-minded anglers are going to have going into the Amendment 7 debate:

The Working Group report tells us that.

It also tells us that nothing is likely to change at the ASMFC, at least not from the inside.  If we want fish-focused management for striped bass and other species, we’re going to have to convince Congress to make that happen.

Otherwise, it will be business as usual, lots of sitting on hands, and calling an overfished stock a success.

The fight over Amendment 6 was tough and years-long, and we were happy to come out with a draw.

Judging from the Work Group report, the fight over any new amendment will be worse.

Because it looks like the bass is going to need all the help it can get to come out intact from this one.


Sunday, July 26, 2020

DECISION CLOSE ON MANAGING MENHADEN AS FORAGE


Every fish is part of an ecosystem, and plays a role in keeping its ecosystem intact.

There are predators and prey, specialists and generalists, aggressive hunters of smaller fish and those that subsist by filter feeding on plankton.

While all are different in their own way, in one respect, they’re all the same:  Removing any one of them from an ecosystem will have impacts on other ecosystem components.  And while that’s true of all species, it’s particularly true of the smaller “forage fish” that tie together the food web, feeding largely on plankton while being preyed upon by a host of larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.

Yet fisheries managers have largely ignored fishes’ ecological role when managing various species.  The only passing consideration that they gave it was to include “natural mortality,” or the rate at which a species might perish as a result of predation, ocean conditions, or other non-anthropogenic causes, in the calculations that lead to estimates of stock health and acceptable harvest levels.

But it always was harvest levels, whether acceptable or otherwise, that was at the heart of such calculations.  At best, the goal was maintaining fisheries that were sustainable in the long term, taking natural mortality into consideration.  What was rarely if ever considered was the impact of overall mortality, including both natural and fishing mortality, on the ability of a given species to perform its traditional role in the ecosystem, and support other populations that depended upon it, to a greater or lesser degree, for their own sustainability.


Instead of setting annual catch limits on a single-species basis, where the only concern is setting harvest levels low enough to assure that the fishery will remain sustainable in the long term, regardless of its impacts on the ecosystem, such catch limits might be calculated based not only on sustainable landings, but also on the need to leave enough menhaden in the water to allow the fish to fulfill their traditional role in the food web.

Of course, food webs represent the interlocking relationships between many species, both animal and plant, and it would be very difficult, and likely a practical impossibility, to accurately reflect all of those relationships in a mathematical model.  Fortunately, in order to properly manage Atlantic menhaden, such complexity isn’t required.

Scientists instead modeled the ecological role of the Atlantic menhaden with respect to four predators—striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, and spiny dogfish—as well as one other forage species, the Atlantic herring.  It turned out that even that much detail isn’t required.  As the Ecological Reference Point Work Group and Atlantic Menhaden Technical Committee recently reported in a memorandum to the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board,

“Atlantic striped bass was the focal species for the example [ecological reference points] because it was the most sensitive predator fish species to Atlantic menhaden harvest in the…model, so an [ecological reference point] target and threshold that sustained striped bass would likely not cause additional declines for other predators in the model assuming no other major perturbations to the food web/ecosystem structure.”



Again, the meeting will be held as a webinar, but the May meeting proved to the ASMFC that webinars work, and so the Commission now feels comfortable addressing complex management issues such as ecological reference points in such a setting.

When the postponed motion comes up for a vote, the Management Board will hopefully move forward, to include ecological reference points in the Atlantic menhaden management plan.  If they do so, a decade-long effort by conservation groups and some angling organizations will be on the verge of success.


“menhaden are critical forage for a wide diversity of marine life in the Atlantic, including many commercially and recreationally-valuable fish like striped bass, bluefish, tuna, cod, king mackerel and tarpon, as well as many species of seabirds and marine mammals…[T]he ecological reference points are based on the best available science from the Ecological Reference Points Assessment that the [Atlantic Menhaden Management] Board approved for management use in February.  [internal formatting omitted]”
Wild Oceans wisely wants to see menhaden managed to the ecological reference point target, and asks anyone commenting on the issue to

“Insist that the ASMFC adopt the new [ecological reference points] with the clear intent of managing to the [ecological reference point] TARGET.  Maintaining abundance in the water is the goal for a forage species, not simply preventing the collapse of menhaden and its predators (managing to the threshold).”

“We urge you to adopt the [Ecosystem Reference Point] Work Group-recommended and peer-reviewed [ecosystem reference point] target of 0.19 and threshold of 0.57.  We also encourage you to commit on the record and to the public that the Board intends to conservatively manage to this new target reference point, defined as the maximum fishing mortality rate (F) on Atlantic menhaden that sustains striped bass at their biomass target when striped bass are fished at their F target.  As striped bass and other menhaden predators, as well as numerous prey species, along the Atlantic coast continue to struggle, managing to the new, more protective [ecological reference point] target becomes key.  Doing so will not only serve to encourage recovery of these species, but can also buffer the negative impacts of swings in menhaden population abundance and recruitment at a time when the ecosystem is rapidly changing.  It will have the added benefit of bolstering forage availability for predators that also rely on depleted prey like Atlantic herring…particularly in New England where older fish return if the population is healthy and hopefully in the South Atlantic where a recovery has not yet happened.”
Again, it all makes sense. 

The problem is that managing menhaden with ecological reference points could, at some point, require harvest to be cut.

That’s not the case today, when the actual fishing mortality is slightly lower than the ecological reference point target.  But should menhaden abundance decline, maintaining a fishing mortality rate at or below the ecological reference point target could require a harvest reduction, and there are people out there who could very well be opposed to that.

And those people, and their allies on the Management Board, could very well oppose the adoption of ecological reference points for just that reason, knowing that traditional, single-species management will allow them a larger kill, even if the stock declines.


All comments should be emailed to comments@asmfc.org, and the ASMFC notes that the comments should clearly include the commenter's desires about distribution—that is, “include in supplemental materials” or “distribute to Management Board.”  Also, the “subject” line of the email should clearly indicate that the email addresses “Atlantic Menhaden ecological reference points.”

It only takes a few minutes to compose an adequate email, that will let managers know that you would like to see menhaden managed for their ecosystem role, and not merely for their value as bait or as fish meal.  Helping to convince them that is the case will pay dividends in the number of striped bass, bluefish and other species that we’ll be able to catch in the future.





Thursday, July 23, 2020

NMFS SHEDS SOME LIGHT ON COVID-RELATED DATA ISSUES



At the time, I expressed real concern that managers would have little or no 2020 data to guide their fisheries decisions, and that management, and fish stocks, could suffer as a result.

We now have a little more information on how the National Marine Fisheries Service hopes to move forward.  While the situation still is not good, it appears that we will not be facing as worst case scenario, and NMFS staff is working to find a rational approach to what will still be a difficult season.


Dr. Cody and Ms. Kelly combined to provide a very detailed and very candid description of the challenges that NMFS has faced, and will continue to face, this year in collecting recreational fishing data, filling in the gaps where data is missing, and crafting recreational regulations that meet the legal standards for avoiding overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks, without unnecessarily burdening anglers.

Dr. Cody began the webinar, briefly describing the various surveys included in MRIP, and explaining that in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, COVID’s biggest impact is on the so-called Access Point Angler Intercept Survey (APAIS), in which surveyors conduct in-person interviews with anglers, ask a number of questions about their fishing day, and actually count and measure the fish that anglers harvest.

The COVID impacts have been about what one might expect.  State rules about “phased reopening” determined whether the APAIS survey could be conducted at all.  In places where surveying was still possible, each state provided its own protocols with respect to how it could be conducted.  As all state reopening plans were and are subject to change as the rate of infection ebbs and flows, the APAIS process remains somewhat uncertain and subject to local interruption.

As a result, catch sampling has been incomplete, and the process remains challenging.  COVID’s first impacts manifested themselves in late March and early April, the heart of “Wave 2;” sampling was suspended for a part of late April.  As a result, no catch estimates for Wave 2 will be released.

Sampling coverage was also limited in Wave 3 (May-June) and will inevitably be limited in Wave 4 (July-August) as well; so far, for all of this year, Dr. Cody described both the geographical and temporal coverage as “spotty.”  “Social distancing” also makes it much more difficult for surveyors to interview anglers and check their catch, so there will be fewer interviews conducted than there would be in a typical year.  

As a result, NMFS will have less, and less reliable, data with respect to catch per unit effort (how many fish anglers catch in a given amount of time, which is generally a good indication of relative abundance), the species that compose anglers’ catch, and the size of the fish being landed.

Because of such incomplete sampling, Dr. Cody said that there was

“the potential for some serious bias”
in the APAIS data.  

That is troubling, because the recreational catch rate information provided by APAIS is a key input used to calculate recreational catch and landings.  Since recreational catch and landings estimates are then used in biologists’ estimates of stock health, biased APAIS data has the potential to create real problems for managers.

The good news is that, although the APAIS data is going to be iffy this year, the Fishing Effort Survey, which is conducted by mail, along with the For-Hire Telephone Survey, have been largely unaffected by COVID so far.  That could change, if the contractor conducting the surveys is impacted by the virus and is unable to perform at current levels, but to date, the effort surveys seem to be on track.

That’s important, because with many people unemployed or working from home, fishing effort seems to have increased substantially.  There has been a lot of anecdotal comments to that effect, and if those comments are, in fact, true, they could foreshadow a big increase in recreational harvest. 

Once NMFS has the effort figures in hand, it will be better able to determine whether or not such an increase has actually occurred.  However, it will still be very difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of 2020 recreational landings.

Dr. Cody noted that the approaches to deal with the missing data are “very limited,” and that there will be “significant data gaps.”  NMFS is looking at two basic options:  It can create a model that addresses known gaps in the data, but creating such model will take a lot of time.  Any such model probably wouldn’t be completed by the end of the year, and would still require NMFS to make some assumptions about recreational catch and effort.

NMFS’ other option is to use “imputation,” which means taking data from other years and using it to plug holes in the information it has for 2020.  Such imputation has been used before to fill gaps in fisheries data, but never on the scale that would be required this year; if NMFS used imputed data and fishermen didn’t like the results (i.e., it resulted in additional restrictions on landings), there is a very good chance that the validity of such data would be challenged.

It’s possible that NMFS may also use what Dr. Cody called “auxiliary data sets,” such as the vessel trip reports (VTRs) filed by for-hire vessels or other sources of recreational fishing information, to color its decisions.  Such data sets aren’t perfect, but Dr. Cody felt comfortable that VTRs landings information, for example, could be somewhat ground-truthed by comparing them to APAIS data, although the limited number of interviews will limit the efficacy of that approach. 

However, absent video in a vessel’s cockpit, or an observer on board, it is impossible to know for certain whether VTR information on the number of fish released, and whether they were returned to the water alive, dead or dying.  He noted that the question of accurate VTR information has become “a growing issue” as regulations become more restrictive.

But in the end, both NMFS and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will need some sort of estimates to guide them is setting 2020 regulations. 

Ms. Kelly took over the webinar at that point to describe how the regulation-setting process should work.

She explained that the regulatory process has three basic steps.  There is data gathering and compilation, there is the ASMFC and the regional fishery management councils deciding what to do with such data, and there is the rulemaking process itself.

The data and collection process involves all of the issues that Dr. Cody described, including potentially biased APAIS data, imputation, the use of auxiliary information, etc.  Scientists must decide, for each managed species, whether they can safely assume that past catch rates might also be used for 2020 harvest estimates, or whether intervening factors make such assumption untenable.  

Ms. Kelly noted that many species are managed with multi-year specifications, which eases the data-crunching burden somewhat.  But despite such multi-year programs, NMFS still has a legal obligation to ensure that overfishing does not occur.

At some point, the scientists’ estimates and advice will be handed over to the ASMFC and the regional fishery management councils.  It is up to those bodies to decide whether, and how, management measures should be adjusted to account for the 2020 data.  

Should the annual catch limit be adjusted downward to account for management uncertainty?  If states each have a separate recreational quota, does the uncertainty in the data impact each state equally, or do some potentially face in inequitable result?  Should management bodies adopt more precautionary measures in the case of overfished stocks or those that have been subject to overfishing?

In the case of ASMFC-managed fisheries, where managers need not worry about meeting legal standards for conservation and management, the process can end there, with each affected state adopting regulations that comply with the ASMFC’s decision.  But in the case of federally-managed fisheries, where the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act applies, the rulemaking process is significantly more rigorous.

In those cases, federal managers must first determine the minimum level of data that is necessary to adequately quantify the risk of overfishing, for in all cases, whatever regulations are adopted must have at least a 50 percent probability of preventing overfishing from occurring.  Then the NMFS must be able to justify, as part of its regulatory package, why the proposed management measures meet that and other legal standards, and put its proposed measures out for public comment.  Only after the public comments have been addressed may the NMFS issue a final rule.

Which all means that fisheries managers have a difficult road ahead of them.  Thanks to the impacts of COVID-19, they will be forced to conserve and manage the nation’s fisheries resources without having all the needed information on hand.

Such situation calls out for additional precaution on the part of fisheries managers, especially in the case of overfished stocks such as striped bass and bluefish, to assure that, by failing to adopt sufficiently restrictive regulations in the face of what appears to be increased fishing effort, they make the situation worse than it is today.

But it’s clear from Dr. Cody’s and Ms. Kelly’s comments that the NMFS is working hard to develop the best information available, given the trying circumstances.

At the worst, the data situation looks somewhat better today than it did two or three months ago.