Sunday, February 2, 2014
STRIPED BASS: A TEST OF ASMFC'S LEGITIMACY
When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board meets next Tuesday, will it act responsibly, and follow the guidance of the latest stock assessment? Or will it equivocate, propose half-measures and fail to adopt the best available science?
If the Management Board does the right thing on Tuesday, will it approve meaningful harvest reductions later this year? Or will it allow commissioners to delay and eventually derail such reductions, and adopt measures that protect the fishing industry instead of the fish?
This year’s striped bass debate will test ASMFC’s legitimacy. If ASMFC can rise to the occasion and adopt new, science-based management measures that avoid overfishing and promptly rebuild the striped bass stock, it will have passed the test.
But if ASMFC fails to do so, it will have demonstrated that it is a fatally flawed management body that, as presently constituted, cannot be trusted to conserve and rebuild coastal fish populations.
Right now, there is reason to be optimistic. Last October, the Management Board, in a 15 to 0 vote, instructed Commission staff to prepare a new draft Addendum IV. On Tuesday, it will decide whether to send out such draft (http://www.asmfc.org/files/Meetings/Winter2014/AtlStripedBassBoard_Supplemental.pdf) for public comment, amend it and then send it out, or not send it out at all.
The current draft addresses fishing mortality reference points for both the coastal migratory stock and for the Chesapeake producer area. The coastal reference points are the ones that directly affect most of us, and the draft presents only two options: maintaining the current reference points of Fthreshold=0.41 and Ftarget=0.30 or adopting those recommended in the stock assessment, Fthreshold=0.219 and Ftarget=0.180.
The lower reference point would cap annual harvest at about 16% of the stock, significantly lower than the roughly 26% annual removal rate permitted by the current plan.
If striped bass were a federally managed species, subject to the requirements of the Magnuson Act, the lower fishing mortality reference points would have to be adopted, as they represent the best available science. However, ASMFC is not bound by Magnuson, so there is always a risk that some commissioners will successfully attempt to add a third option that reduces harvest a little, but not as much as the science demands.
If you read the minutes from last October’s Management Board meeting (http://www.asmfc.org/files/Meetings/Winter2014/AtlanticStripedBassManagementBoard.pdf), you know that not all commissioners support harvest cuts. Thomas Fote, governor’s appointee from New Jersey, raised a number of objections.
“…This is a real change in how we manage striped bass recreationally along the whole coast. This is not a minor change. It affects a lot of people’s livelihoods; it affects a lot of people the way they do business. It is going to have a huge impact on the recreational fishing industry up and down the coast. I think this is too big to just do an addendum.
“I think this is really an amendment process because we have changed what we basically passed. When we opened the fishery, it was two fish at 18 inches and two fish at 28 inches along the coast. That is a major change that has been in place. You know, major regulations have been in place for 20 years and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions to change that regulation...”
Fote also made comments that provide insight into how some commissioners view public comment, particularly when they call for heightened conservation measures.
“In my estimation, we’ve been here when the sky is falling and a whole bunch of people are yammering…
“…People have been pushing for closing this or doing something. The people who basically send the e-mails are the people who want to do that. The people that are out fishing a lot times, which is a majority of the fishermen I go around and talk to, they’re not ready to jump through this type of hoop. I really think we have some real concerns here.”
Note that, in Fote's comments, people who care about declining bass stocks apparently think “the sky is falling” and engage in “yammering.” They are the “people who basically send the e-mails,” while “people that are out fishing a lot times,” which are “a majority of the fishermen” that Fote knows, support the status quo.
Comments like that gets a little scary, when you care about conservation. But they're pretty common at ASMFC.
For Fote isn’t the only commissioner who feels that way; he is merely one of the most outspoken. Once Amendment IV goes out to public comment, and similar sentiments are echoed by members of the commercial fishing, for-hire and fishing tackle industries, other commissioners opposed to harvest reductions will almost certainly emerge to champion their cause.
Even so, the odds favor Addendum IV being adopted at ASMFC’s May meeting, with the lowered coastal reference points intact.
Unfortunately, getting that far is only half of the battle.
To implement the new, lower reference points, ASMFC will also have to adopt a second addendum. That one will spell out the restrictions needed to reduce the kill.
Such addendum will prove to be the real test of ASMFC’s worth.
For some commissioners will probably try to delay harvest cuts with endless debate on the myriad possible options. They will want to discuss elimination of the commercial fishery and examine recreational bag and size limits, including “slots” (just going over the many possible slot limit options could consume endless hours). They will argue over anglers on party and charter boats being able to retain more or smaller fish than those fishing from shore or from private vessels. They might pore over commercial issues, such as limited entry, bycatch-prone gear and differing state size limits with a fine-toothed comb, dragging out each and every argument until it is too late to adopt new rules for the 2015 season.
Or, nature might throw the anti-conservation folks a bone.
This has been a cold and snowy winter, and such winters often lead to very successful spawns in Chesapeake Bay. If a strong 2014 year class is confirmed before new management measures are adopted, some commissioners will undoubtedly argue that the striped bass stock is fixing itself, and try to convince the Management Board to defer any further action for a year or two, in order to first see how the 2011 (and maybe 2014) year class impacts the population.
Such efforts couldn’t succeed if striped bass management was governed by the Magnuson Act, which makes conservation and timely rebuilding a priority. Federal fisheries managers, operating pursuant to Magnuson, have proved their legitimacy, ending overfishing for many stocks and fully rebuilding many others within a relatively short time.
But that’s not the case with ASMFC. Two decades ago, it brought the striped bass back from collapse to abundance, but since that time, it has seen a number of state-managed stocks go from abundance to, or past, the brink of collapse. And these days, even the striped bass isn’t faring too well.
ASMFC’s legitimacy as an effective management agency is very much in question.
Will ASMFC pass the striped bass test? I hope so.
For if it fails to follow the dictates of science in the case of striped bass—the most-researched and most important species that it manages—there is no reason to believe that it is capable of managing anything else at all.