Sunday, April 27, 2014

STRIPED BASS, ROUND TWO: MAY AT ASMFC

ASMFC’s Spring Meeting will take place during the week of May 11, down in Alexandria, Virginia.  The Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will meet on the 13th, when it will hopefully put together a draft addendum to the fishery management plan that will determine how bass will be managed for the rest of this decade.

The Management Board was supposed to put out one draft addendum in February.  That one would have incorporated the new fishing mortality reference points—Ftarget=0.180 and Fthreshold=0.219—that were endorsed in the benchmark stock assessment that was presented last October.  That addendum would have been finalized thid May, and a second draft addendum addressing the regulations needed to constrain harvest within those reference points prepared at the May meeting.

However, the Management Board punted in February, purportedly to present both issues at once, so the timeline for getting everything done has gotten a little compressed.  Still, there’s plenty of time to get regulations in place for 2015—provided that no one slows up the process.

Right now, professional managers are sending out word that all will be well.  I have heard them say that efforts to reduce striped bass harvest WILL be in place for the 2015 season.


I know they believe that, and I think that they’re right, but I can’t help worrying about the amateurs on the Management Board who might not go along, and will see any delay as a victory.

Adopting the new, lower reference points should be a slam dunk, if we believe the Commission’s charter.  Section Six, subsection (a)(2), of the Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter states very clearly that “Conservation programs and management measures shall be based on the best scientific information available,“ and if a peer-reviewed stock assessment of striped bass, one of the most data-rich stocks in the country, doesn’t qualify as “the best scientific information,” I’m not sure what does.

But nothing is ever easy at ASMFC, in part because there is no court oversight.  Sure, the Charter says that “the best scientific information“ must be used, but if the Management Board thinks otherwise, who can intervene?  Right now, a Federal Appellate Court decision says “Maybe nobody.”

It’s not even clear to me why the management plan doesn’t provide that the results of any such assessment—clearly “the best scientific information“—will be incorporated automatically, since the matter really shouldn’t be debatable; such debate only makes it harder for ASMFC to do the right thing.  It would be nice if the Management Board put such language in the May draft addendum, but in the real world, that’s not going to happen.  It’s a fight for another day and likely for another lifetime.

The real fireworks are going to start when the management board proposes regulations that would make any harvest cuts real.  Right now—and this isn’t final, because ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee is going to revisit the issue on the 1st of May—it appears that we’re looking at a 31% cut, which could be achieved by either going to one fish at 28 inches or two at 33; there will also be talk about a slot limit, and between the three options, there’s plenty for folks to fight about.

Personally, of the three choices, I’d take one fish at 28 inches.  Given current conditions, it would do the least harm to the stock.  

A 28-inch bass is going to be six or seven years old in 2015, which means that it will come from the 2008 or 2009 year class; both year classes were below average, so there won’t be many barely-legal fish around.  But 2007 was a pretty fair year—the best ever in the Hudson River, and a little above-average in the Chesapeake—so there should be a decent number of 10-12 pound stuff around for the folks who want to take a fish home.  The rest of the mortality could be spread among the older fish.  Most of those older fish would be 2001s and 2003s, but there would be enough big fish from the 1996 and even 1993 year classes to keep things interesting (and we can hope that most of the guys good enough and patient enough to land those big ones will also be wise enough to set them free.)

The tackle shops should be happy to keep the 28-inch limit, and the party boat folks should be as well, since it’s small enough to make their customers believe that they might take a legal fish home. On the other hand, I can hear the charter boats that specialize in catching big fish on bait howling, because they'll no longer be able to hang a dozen big bass for photos at the dock, and their customers won't be able to take all those big fish home to show off to their neighbors, forget in their freezers and feed to their tomatoes the following spring. 

Those boats will want to see two at 33”, which would be a truly bad idea.  Right now, most of the striped bass’ spawning potential is locked up in older year classes. The youngest of those are the 2003s, and they passed the 33-inch mark a couple of years ago.  Let the boats concentrate on the big fish—giving anglers a chance to take two on each trip—and the 2003 year class--as well as every other older year class--is going to get beat up pretty badly.  

Better to limit them to a single fish.

The other possibility that’s floating around out there is a slot limit.  It’s not clear what such a slot would look like, since the Technical Committee hasn’t provided any guidance yet, but some parameters will be available by the time that the Management Board gets together.  If the slot takes its usual form—that is, if it allows fish less than 28 inches to be caught and sets an upper limit somewhere below 30 inches--slot limit proponents may get an unexpected surprise.

Anglers often view slots as a conservation measure, but that's not really true.

If we look at a couple of real-world examples, Maine’s recreational slot and the commercial slot in place in New York, that becomes apparent pretty quickly. 

When Maine adopted its slot—which allows anglers to take either one immature bass in the 22-26 inch range or a prime spawner more than 40 inches long—it was forced to cut its bag limit from two fish to one in order to achieve “conservation equivalency” to two at 28 inches.  And when New York went to a 24-36 inch commercial slot to minimize the concentration of PCBs in the fish sold (PCBs bioaccumulate, and larger fish have higher concentrations), it had to compensate by cutting its commercial landings by more than a quarter.

So if we’re starting with one fish at 28 inches, cutting the bag limit to compensate for harm a slot does to the stock won’t be an option; managers will be forced to impose some sort of season.  And the odds are that such season would take a pretty big bite out of either the spring or the fall fishery.  For that reason alone—most fishermen want to be able to get out on the water as much as they can—a slot seems like a poor option.  But it also presents another problem.

Right now, anglers and fishery managers alike are pinning a lot of hope on the big 2011 year class, the first truly large year class since 2003.  Although a few early-maturing females from the 2011 year class will become a part of the spawning stock in 2016, a majority will not mature until 2018, when the 2003s will be 15 years old and starting to show the effects of 8 years of coastwide harvest (on top of another 4 years of harvest while still juveniles in Chesapeake Bay).  So does it make sense to adopt a slot limit which will take a significant number of the 2011s out of the population before they have a chance to spawn even once? 

I don’t think so.

But I do think that we should be looking a little farther into the future.

The 2011 year class was solid, but the 2012 year class was the worst ever recorded; even during the depths of the collapse, more young bass were spawned.  And if the pattern that Maryland scientists have noted is true—that cold winters and cold, wet springs lead to good spawns, and warm winters and dry springs lead to poor ones—the current climate trends don't favor the production of dominant year classes.

Thus, I tend to see the Technical Committee’s recommendation as a starting point.  When the Management Board prepares the draft addendum in May, it shouldn’t consider any harvest reductions that are smaller than that recommended.  However, it probably should consider some larger cuts—one of forty and maybe even one of fifty percent—and give the public the chance to decide whether greater precaution should be employed.

Because when the Management Board drafts an addendum, it often includes a lot of options that folks say they want to see, whether or not such options reflect the majority view.  And sometimes, during the public hearing process, some of those options get a lot more support than anyone expected.  So the key is to try to get as many good ideas into the addendum, and try to keep as many bad ideas out, as you possibly can.  Otherwise, some bad ideas can get legs and some good ones might go ignored.

I plan to submit my comments to the Management Board—the address is on the ASMFC website—by April 30, so that they get into the meeting materials.  I’ll send a copy to my state commissioners, too (they can be found on another part of ASMFC’s site).

You should do the same. 


Consider May 5 your deadline, and get it done.

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