Thursday, July 31, 2014
MARYLAND SEEKS TO SLOW STRIPED BASS RECOVERY
Most of our striped bass are spawned in Chesapeake Bay, and most of those come from the waters of Maryland. For that reason, Maryland’s striped bass young-of-the-year index has generally been the best future predictor of the future health of the stock.
Thus, folks who care about the striper’s future have been rightly concerned by the fact that the index has been coming in below average for most of the years in the past decade, with the 2012 index the lowest in more than fifty years—even lower than anything recorded during the depths of the last stock collapse.
The one bit of good news came in 2011, when a dominant year class was produced.
You would think that the folks who manage bass down in Maryland would be doing whatever they can to help those 2011s live long enough to recruit into the spawning stock, something that should happen in 2017 or so.
But if you thought that, you would have been wrong.
Maryland has a long history of killing immature bass (back before the collapse, a legal “pan rock” was just 12 inches long), and it doesn’t look like they’re planning to reform any time soon.
Right now, they’ve got the 2011s fixed dead in their sights.
It started last fall when, despite the steady decline if the spawning stock biomass, the state declared its intention to increase the harvest by 14% in 2014. I suppose that went over well with the folks who make their money off the heads of dead fish, but folks capable of thinking about the long term—which, in this case, is anything past the current season—figured out that beating up on the only solid year class in the last decade was probably a dumb idea.
Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, which seems to represent the most rational and responsible anglers in the state, made a really solid effort to prevent such foolishness from going forward but, in the end, the chance of plucking more dollars from the heads of dead bass proved far too attractive for the state to change course.
So this year, the Maryland folks are killing more bass, even though a peer-reviewed stock assessment, that was presented to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last October, and updated in December, noted that
“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality rate] (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015...If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality rate] increases to Fthreshold (0.219), and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point reaches 0.93 by 2015 and declines thereafter…
“…there is a probability of 0.46 that the 2012 female [spawning stock biomass] is below or equal to the [spawning stock biomass] threshold, and a probability of 0.31 that the 2012 fully-recruited fishing mortality is above or equal to the fishing mortality threshold…”
The stock assessment also made it clear that, although the stock was not yet overfished and that overfishing did not occur in the past couple of years, the target fishing mortality levels had been exceeded, and the spawning stock biomass had been below target levels since 2006.
“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 in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality to a rate that is at or below the target within one year.“
That seems pretty clear, but not if you’re Thomas O’Connell, the marine fisheries director for the State of Maryland. He took a look at Amendment 6, and its mandate to reduce fishing mortality, but wasn’t too impressed.
Instead of making meaningful changes to the management program in order to reduce fishing mortality to the target level, O’Connell decided that he’d rather make changes to Amendment 6, and allow harvest reductions to be phased in over three full years, instead the one year currently required.
As too often happens at ASMFC, it was a matter of elevating short-term economic gains over the need to conserve and rebuild the stock. At the May Striped Bass Management Board meeting, O'Connell said
“I think it really comes down to a cost-benefit analysis and trying to weigh the impacts versus the likely benefits of our action today…
“I think, as I mentioned earlier, a 32 to 36 percent reduction is going to have large socio-economic impacts as well as potential ecological impacts. I think we don’t have a stock situation that is in dire need of protection…”
Not everyone on the Management Board shared that view. Paul Deodati, the state fisheries director from Massachusetts, eloquently opposed O’Connell’s approach, correctly noting that
“We’re actually working off the tenets of Amendment 6, which are pretty clear about what this board is supposed to do. We’re not supposed to wait until new fall down well below the levels that [Thomas O’Connell is] suggesting. We’re supposed to take an action now.
“It is always difficult when we have to make a cut, especially when our fisheries aren’t completely falling apart; but with striped bass we took a very deliberate approach to how we were going to react to and address changes in stock condition. This is the change that we identified many years ago as a point in time when we’ll take a serious action to reduce fishing mortality. We’ve reached that. In fact, in my belief we have gone well beyond the time that we allowed ourselves to take this action.
“I think that any further delays is going to hurt the credibility of the commission. It is going to completely tarnish the integrity of the Striped Bass Management Plan, which I think we’ve worked really hard to maintain as a top-notch managed program. I don’t think that’s our intent, but I’m afraid that would be the result of delaying action on this…“
Pat Augustine, proxy for New York’s legislative appointee, also raised the issue of ASMFC’s credibility, pointing out that
“I think at the end of the day if we just decide we’re not going to follow through on what our commitment was last year to be well on our way to recovery and implementation January of 2015 and come up with anything that is going to dilute the direction we’re going, I think we will totally lose the credibility of the public…
There is a lot of emotion out there; and to do anything other than what we committed to do, we’re going to have mud all over our face and we’re going to embarrass ourselves…“
However, Tom Fote, governor’s appointee from New Jersey and long-time opponent of ever reducing the recreational harvest of anything, regardless of the health of the stock, was quick to jump on the O’Connell bandwagon, trying to discredit Augustine with a somewhat unintelligible argument that
“The credibility is that we’re basically trying to accommodate fishermen. New York has always wanted one fish. When we opened the fishery when there is plenty of fish, their surf fishermen wanted one fish. That is not the reality in New York.
“That is the reality of other states, and this is a compact of all the states that we try to accommodate our fishermen whatever they need…
“I have no problem and our credibility always stands as it is…”
Although, in the end, the facts spoke for themselves, and Deodati was clearly correct. When ASMFC adopted Amendment 6, it made a covenant with the public to take management action when a trigger was tripped. Should the Striped Bass Management Board ultimately approve a three-year phase-in of the reduction, it will have violated the public trust, and demonstrated that its word is not to be trusted.
Hopefully, that will not happen, but…
There’s no doubt that Maryland is going to work hard to make that happen, and in the end, it's easy to understand why.
The 2011 year class won’t recruit into the coastal fishery until 2017. Until then—perhaps not coincidentally—Maryland and the other Chesapeake fisheries will have them to themselves. The females will migrate out of the bay for the summer, but most of the males will stick around, and the Maryland fishermen—commercial and recreational—and the Maryland charter boats will be able to pound on them pretty hard while they’re around.
Given that the 2011s are the first good year class since 2003, that 2012 was the worst ever recorded and that we don’t know when the next good spawn will be (although there’s reason to hope that 2013 might be solid), it’s hard to blame Maryland for trying to take what they can while the taking’s good.
Except…even their own anglers are cautious. CCA Maryland adopted its “My Limit is One” campaign to try to protect some fish and mitigate the damage that the 14% harvest increase will do.
So why does Maryland want to kill so many striped bass?
As O’Connell said, for “socio-economic” reasons.
Which is the nice way of saying that it’s all about the almighty buck, and someone trying to squeeze a little more blood from the stone before casting it aside.
We always have to remember that responsible anglers such as the folks at CCA Maryland aren’t the only people fishing for bass.
Maryland’s commercial sector killed 2,524,181 pounds of stripers in 2012 (compared to the 1,445,187 pounds landed by its anglers), and it has a big charter fleet that puts dead bass high on its list of priorities, killing 46% of the entire recreational harvest. O’Connell is trying to put a little more money in their pockets today, rather than trying to restore the stock—and so putting more money in their pockets tomorrow.
Even Maryland’s United States senators got into the act. A letter addressed to Robert Beal, ASMFC's Executive Director, co-signed by Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin says that the proposed reduction in striped bass harvest
“will adversely impact Maryland’s striped bass fisheries—and could affect entire Bay communities and other fishery industries as a whole—without the benefit of achieving the Commission’s desired level of protection to the spawning stock…
“The Commission is considering action due to concerns over a fishing mortality rate that exceeds the target level, and the dacade long decline in the female spawning stock. Both of these conditions warrant some conservation action, but that action should not be so extreme as to cause undue economic hardship to coastal communities…
"We ask for the Commission’s continued support for inclusion of a multi-year approach to reducing fishing mortality to the target level…”
In other words, the good senators know that there’s a problem with the striped bass stock, and know that something needs to be done, but doesn’t want ASMFC to do anything that might—according to the best available science—be truly effective, because that might affect the short-term health of some constituents’ bank accounts.
What is worthy of note—and particularly heartening to those who support doing the right thing for the striper—is that the senators’ letter was the only letter received by ASMFC that supported the three-year phase in of harvest reductions.
All 36 of the letters included in the original meeting materials (which include a petition signed by 1,428 people), and the remaining 51 letters included in the supplemental materials, supported imposing meaningful harvest restrictions. None supported a three-year phase in of harvest reductions, and the vast majority specifically opposed such action.
The other comments received from Maryland residents included 14 letters from individuals, who asked the Management Board to “cut the fishery…as much as you can legally” and one from a Solomons-based charter boat captain, who said that
“The people from Md DNR have done nothing about the decline of the striped bass. I fish about 100 trips a year that the decline is Very Clear [sic] a limited number of rock fish in a small area that will be wiped out sooner than later.”
It doesn’t seem likely that the captain would appreciate the position taken by O'Connell, his state fishery director, nor with that taken by Senators Mikulski and Cardin…
All 17 letters received from anglers in Virginia, which shares Chesapeake Bay—and any special Chesapeake Bay regulations—with Maryland call for taking action in one year, not three.
Maryland’s staunchest allies on the Management Board, Tom Fote of New Jersey and Rick Bellavance of Rhode Island (who said “..from the folks that I speak to in our neck of the woods, we don’t see a problem”), don’t seem to have much constituent support. There were no comment letters from New Jersey at all, while the only comment letter from Rhode Island stated that
“THERE ARE FEWERE AND LESS [sic] LARGE BASS AND IT’S GETTING WORSE EVERY YEAR. Traditional areas of past striped bass abundance are shells of what they used to be…Even the commercial fishermen have to travel farther and farther to target dwindling stocks of striped bass“
“…drastic action…Complete moratorium on commercial and recreational harvesting of striped bass until stocks are at 2006 levels or at a minimum of one fish at 36 inches…“
So it looks as if Maryland officials—both its fisheries director and its U.S. senators—and their allies from other states have taken a position that is not supported by the public at large, by Amendment 6 to the management plan nor by the stock assessment.
I suppose that only the folks who profit from dead striped bass stand behind them.
Yet they continue to oppose needed conservation measures.
Which just shows, once again, that so long as there is money to be made, there will always be someone trying to do the wrong thing at ASMFC.