Thursday, January 30, 2014


Stripers Forever is one of those organizations that leaves me a little conflicted.

On one hand, I have to admire the dedication of its leadership, and can only agree with its goal of ensuring the long-term health of the striped bass stock.  On the other hand, its emphasis on a single, politically unrealistic approach to striped bass management—eliminating the commercial fishery—and its mixed message of support for both conservation measures and relaxed recreational regulations (“the minimum legal size for anglers is 28”, which puts a bass for dinner out of reach for the great majority of rod and reel fishermen”) tends to turn me off.
However, Stripers Forever’s recent comments on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Five-Year Strategic Plan ( were right on the money and demonstrate that the organization “gets it” when it comes to the big-picture issue.
The “Executive Summary” of Stripers’ Forever’s comments includes a number of points.  However, the first point really says it all, and captures ASMFC’s core failing:
“There is no statement endorsing the health and abundance of our marine resources as the most important management priority.  The current management decisions reflect a risky bias toward Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) to the exclusion of a true conservation ethic.”
The remainder of the comments merely flesh out a truth that is all too clear to anyone who has spent much time following the decision-making process at ASMFC—that the restoration and conservation of living marine resources takes a second seat to economic exploitation.
I have little doubt that those who attempt to discredit Stripers Forever’s comments will quibble with the details.  For example, there are some ASMFC management plans—including the plan for striped bass—which adopt a target mortality rate thought to be well below MSY.  But there are other cases—tautog is one which immediately comes to mind—in which harvest was permitted to exceed MSY for well over a decade.
Others might take issue with Stripers Forever’s anti-commercial fishing bias, and its repeated claims that ASMFC doesn’t give adequate regard to the economic importance of recreational fisheries.  Such objections would be justified, for most ASMFC commissioners clearly want both the commercial and recreational industries to be profitable.  They care so much about the health and profitability of industry that they justify Stripers Forever’s key contentions:  The health and abundance of marine resources is not ASMFC’s most important management priority, and the Commission does not demonstrate anything resembling a true conservation ethic.
Stripers Forever is also correct when it notes that the typical ASMFC management plan has “no provision for risk reduction in the face of incomplete data.”  Instead of sharply restricting, or even prohibiting, harvest of troubled stocks such as American shad, river herring, southern New England lobster or northern shrimp (or American eel, southern New England winter flounder, weakfish or, for fully 15 years, tautog) to prevent further decline, ASMFC used uncertain or incomplete data as an excuse for delay and continued exploitation, and in doing so rendered the recovery of such stocks a far more difficult task than it might otherwise have been.
The Commission can get away with that because, as Stripers Forever also notes,
“…it isn’t apparent that ASMFC is ever accountable for anything.  Members may be accountable to their home jurisdictions, but, as a regulatory body…there appears to be no level at which ASMFC is accountable.  Are there penalties or sanctions of some sort if a stock collapses under ASMFC management?  No…”
ASMFC’s lack of institutional  accountability was confirmed in the federal Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit) decision in New York v. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 609 F.3d 524 (2010), in which the court found that ASMFC was neither a federal agency nor a “quasi-agency,” and that its decisions were thus not subject to court review pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act.  And commissioners’ accountability to constituents in their home states assures that such commissioners will elevate parochial interests—most particularly near-term economic interests—above the common good and the long-term health of the stock.
Thus, even though ASMFC’s staff includes a host of very competent fisheries scientists—I have known many of them over the years, and can say without reservation that all of them had a sincere desire to do the right thing—the Commission’s efforts to restore depleted stocks has largely been a dismal failure.  The recovery of the striped bass was the Commission’s singular success, and that occurred nearly twenty years ago (even there, success may be slipping away, as a shrinking biomass hovers just above the overfishing threshold).
That is because the biologists on ASMFC’s staff do not make the decisions.  As is usually the case in salt water fisheries management, the actual decisions are made by a combination of state managers and the people who actually harvest the resource.
That means that salt water fisheries are managed very differently from deer or ducks, squirrel or sunfish—or, in fact, any other sort of living resource.  In those cases, with some limited exceptions in a few states, decisions on how many animals can be harvested are made by trained biologists, who may receive advice from various user groups but ultimately have the sole responsibility for setting seasons, bag limits and caps on harvest.
Giving state fisheries managers and representatives of the fishing community significant control over salt water fisheries management works at the federal level, because the Magnuson Act makes “the health and abundance of our marine resources…the most important management priority,” and legislatively creates a “conservation ethic” that the economic interests of the fishermen sitting on the various regional fishery management councils cannot override.
But as Stripers Forever observes, no such emphasis on the conservation of healthy and abundant marine resources is seen at ASMFC.  There, the staff scientists have no say in the ultimate management decisions, and the 17 professionals on the various management boards are outnumbered nearly two to one by the 30 legislative and governors’ appointees, thbe majority of whom profit in one way or another from the harvest of the same fish that they manage.
Letting the foxes guard the henhouse is never a good idea.  The declines of so many important fish populations managed by ASMFC show us why. 

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