Thursday, May 15, 2014


As the Magnuson reauthorization debate heats up in Congress, one of the themes being pushed by the recreational fishing industry is that the National Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t know how to manage recreational fisheries.  

They argue that federal managers should change their ways and model their actions on those of state fisheries agencies.  They even suggest turning responsibility for the management of recreationally-important species—red snapper is the one most often mentioned—to the states, or perhaps to an interstate management body such as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The industry spokesmen often use a shorthand phrase to express the concept, saying that important recreational species “should be managed like striped bass.”

Unfortunately, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board met earlier this week and, in a chaotic and disjointed session that spanned parts of two days, demonstrated in a very vivid manner why no species—including striped bass—deserve the sort of ineffective efforts that somehow pass as “management” at ASMFC.

Yes, ASMFC did manage to get its act together back in the 1980s, and rebuilt the collapsed striped bass stock by 1995.  But that Commission was structurally different from the one we have today and, in any event, that all happened twenty or more years ago.

It’s time to stop looking over our shoulders at yesterday, and start asking what ASMFC management means for striped bass—and other species—today, and what that means for them tomorrow.

For today’s striped bass problems is really very simple.

Last October, a “benchmark” stock assessment—a comprehensive analysis of the health of the striped bass stock, prepared under the aegis of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and peer-reviewed by a panel of internationally respected fisheries biologist—was presented to ASMFC. 

That assessment noted that the current fishing mortality reference points—that is, the scientific guidance on how many fish could be removed from the stock each year—were far too high, and that new, lower limits on harvest were needed to avoid overfishing.

It also noted that female spawning stock biomass—the total weight of all of the sexually mature female striped bass in the stock—is continuing to decline, and that such biomass will inevitably fall below the threshold for an overfished stock.

That hasn’t happened for over two decades.  ASMFC’s earlier, “successful” recovery of the striped bass stock is becoming more than a little frayed--it is beginning to unravel.

To make things worse, down in Chesapeake Bay, where the great majority of the striped bass are spawned, things aren't looking too good.  There was a big year class in 2003, and another one in 2011, with two roughly average year classes in between.  Aside from that, every year between 2004 and 2013 saw sub-par spawns, with the 2012 year class the worst in more than 50 years; even during the depths of the stock collapse, the young-of-the-year index never fell so low.

Thus, striped bass have a problem.  The question is:  How will ASMFC managers fix it?

If striped bass were a federally-managed species, subject to the conservation and rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson Act, the path forward would be clear.  The benchmark stock assessment, which represents the best available science, would have been incorporated into the management plan as a matter of course.  Regulations would have been quickly adopted to reduce 2014 harvest by about one-third, to prevent overfishing and, with the stock about to become overfished, a recovery plan would have to be put together in order to to rebuild the stock in 10 years or less.

Managers would have acted quickly and effectively to take whatever actions were needed to bring back the bass, and in the end both the fish and the fishermen would have been ahead.

And there’s absolutely no question that would have happened, because federal law currently requires managers to act just that way.

But at ASMFC, where striped bass are, indeed, “managed like striped bass,” none of those things occurred.

The Commission couldn’t even adopt the reference points from the benchmark assessment without putting the matter out to public hearing first, something that they were supposed to do—but didn’t—in February, and then were supposed to do—but didn’t—earlier this week. 

Maybe they'll do it in August.

Maybe they won't.

For delay is the fishermen’s friend when they want to keep overfishing, and there are enough fishermen—and friends of such fishermen—on ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board that I wouldn’t advise betting your firstborn on anything getting done at the next meeting=, either.

The whole process is kind of curious, since a peer-reviewed assessment of a data-rich stock represents the closest thing to a “gold standard” that exists in the world of fisheries science, and it’s not clear how the public—which for the most part is not composed of fisheries scientists—could provide any meaningful insight.

But the process does serve to delay things and, as I mentioned before, that some folks thing that delayh is just fine.

They wouldn’t want to see stripers managed in any other way.

“The series of triggers listed below are associated with the three-year planning horizon to prevent overfishing the striped bass resource.  Upon reaching any (or all) of these triggers, the Management Board is required to alter the management program to ensure the objectives of Amendment 6 are achieved…
3)    If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.
4)    If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [10 years]…”
Yet, while it appears that those two triggers have already been tripped, the draft addendum that ASMFC prepared for for last Tuesday’s meeting contained neither of the deadlines described above.

The striped bass management plan requires the Management Board to end overfishing within one year, but the draft addendum’s provisions let it continue for two years—at best.  Because there is only a 50% chance that the proposed measures will end overfishing by 2016, there is a 50-50 chance that overfishing will occur in 2017 as well.  

That makes the one-year deadline in the management plan a bit of a farce, but—that’s the way striped bass are managed at ASMFC.

And no matter how hard you peruse that proposed addendum, there was no mention of fully restoring the stock, whether within the prescribed ten years, or in any other time.

And that, too, is how striped bass are managed at ASMFC.

Yet even such clear disregard for the management plan didn’t satisfy every member of the Management Board.  

Throughout the meeting, commissioner after commissioner came up with new and creative ways to delay rebuilding make recovery efforts as ineffective as possible.

That would let overfishing go on even longer.  It would also let fishermen in the Chesapeake, who kill 18-inch bass, decimate the 2011 year class—the year class everyone is depending on to rebuild the stock—before it has a chance to spawn for a single time.

Other managers, from coastal states that catch larger fish, would expand a proposed 28 to 34-inch “slot” size limit, intended to protect the largest and most prolific spawners, to 28 to 40 inches.  That's big enough to assure that fish from the 2003 year class—the biggest year class in the entire spawning stock—will be slaughtered everywhere along their migration route, which stretches from North Carolina to Maine.

If ASMFC ultimately adopts both proposals, the spawning potential of the 2003 year class would be quickly diminished, while a substantial percentage of the 2011 year class would be killed before they ever had a chance to mature.

Those of us who lived through the last collapse, and watched the huge 1970 year class destroyed in just a few seasons, know just how quickly even a big year class can disappear.  We don't want to see such a thing happen again today.

But ASMFC seems to be doing its best to forget the lessons of history, and repeat the mistakes of the past.

And that could easily happen, because ASMFC is under no legal requirement to either end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks—or even to consider good science when making its decisions.  ASMFC management boards can and do ignore plan provisions when they prove inconvenient.  And there’s not much we can do about it, since a federal appellate court has decided that ASMFC’s actions are not reviewable under the federal Administrative Procedures Act, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to successfully challenge the Commission in court.

When you get right down to it, striped bass aren’t managed very well.

They managed to get along during the fat years, when favorable conditions in their natal rivers allowed them to produce a big year class every few seasons.  But when times got tough and stocks declined, and the population began to grow lean, ASMFC’s “flexible” management approach lacked the solid legal foundation needed to assure that overfishing is stopped and the stock is rebuilt.

Striped bass deserve better management.

And managing federal fisheries “like striped bass” is a step in the wrong direction.

Both the fish and the fishermen deserve a lot better.

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