Thursday, July 17, 2014


We hear a lot about “best available science” in fisheries management. 

It’s what decisions are supposed to be based on, and in the federal system, they are.  National Standard 2, included in the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, says that

Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.
If the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a regulation that wasn’t supported by the science, there’s a very good chance that they’d be sued.  And that they’d lose.  It’s happened quite a few times before.

However, once you abandon the federal system, science loses its dominant role. 

Folks still give it a lot of lip service.  For example, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter states that

“It is the policy of the Commission that its ISFMP…be based on the best scientific information available…”
The problem is that ASMFC isn’t governed by the Magnuson Act, or any similar law, and there is no national standard that can be used to enforce those words.  To date, courts have not been receptive to legal challenges to ASMFC decisions.  So we end up in a situation where, even when good science exists, ASMFC can wait quite a long time before it adopts it—if it adopts it at all.

I was reminded of that earlier this week, when I attended a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council.

The Council was discussing the August meeting of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, which will debate a reduction in overall striped bass landings.  Such reductions were called for in a recent, peer-reviewed stock assessment, which found that fishing mortality was too high and that the striped bass stock was about to descend into “overfished” territory.

The stock assessment was presented to the Management Board last October, and represents the “best scientific information available”.  The only problem is that nine months have passed since the Management Board had the assessment, and ASMFC still hasn’t replaced the old, now-discredited data in its management plan with the new information.

That won’t happen until October—a full year later—at the earliest.  There is a slim possibility that it will never happen at all.

Part of the problem is that, before adopting the latest scientific findings, ASMFC has to go out and seek public comment on whether or not they should.

When you stop to think about it, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The only comment relevant to the issue would probably be a competing stock assessment, based on equivalent data that passed an equally rigorous peer review.  

The odds of someone making that sort of comment are impossibly high, and comments such as “You suits need to get out on the water.  There’s plenty of bass out there” don’t really add much to the discussion. 

But they do delay the process.

The Management Board was supposed to put the matter out for public comment after its February meeting, then decided to kick the can down the road until May.  At its May meeting, it apparently decided that kicking the can was so much fun that it did it again, delaying release of any draft addendum until August.

So public hearings on the science, which were originally planned for late winter, will now be held in late summer or early fall. 

Unless the can gets kicked one more time.

ASMFC’s failure to promptly adopt the best available science has real implications for striped bass management.
Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass contains five “triggers” which, if tripped, require the Management Board to act to end excessive harvest and/or to recover a stock that has fallen to undesirably low levels.

The third trigger states that

“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.”
Since ASMFC’s 2013 Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment using Final 2012 Data found that the fishing mortality target was exceeded in both 2011 and 2012, the last years for which data is available, and also found that the female spawning stock biomass was below the target in every year since 2006, the Management Board must take action to end overfishing within one year, if the fishing mortality reference points from the latest stock assessment are used.

The same set of facts would also trip the fourth trigger, which states that

“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 [ten years].”
Nine months after the benchmark assessment was presented to the Management Board, no definitive action has been taken to end overfishing, and there has been absolutely no effort to create a plan that would rebuild the striped bass stock.

And the tragic thing is that such inaction can be justified by the argument that, until ASMFC formally adopts the fishing mortality reference points from the benchmark stock assessment, no triggers have actually been tripped, and no action is really required.

Any such argument violates the spirit of Amendment 6; its authors certainly never intended that the Management Board should frustrate the intent of the amendment merely by failing to accept the most recent science.  However, whether such argument violates the letter of Amendment 6 is something for ASMFC to decide.  

And that leaves the bass in a pretty bad place.

Still, despite its current troubles, the striped bass is probably in a better place today than the tautog was for most of the last two decades.  

Back in 1996, ASMFC’s Tautog Technical Committee advised the Tautog Management Board that fishing mortality threshold should not exceed 0.15 (about 14% of the population removed annually).  But the Tautog Management Board hemmed and hawed, encouraged by a recreational fishing industry—particularly the mid-Atlantic party boats—to impose less restrictive measures.

So half-measures went in, and the tautog stock, caught in the limbo of ignored scientific advice, declined.  

More half-measures followed, and they caused fishing mortality to peak at more than three times the recommended level, as bag limits got smaller, size limits grew larger and seasons shrank.  

In 2011—fully fifteen years after the Tautog Technical Committee first made its recommendation—ASMFC adopted Addendum IV to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Tautog, which finally set Fthreshold at 0.15.

By that time, here in New York, a season that had been seven months long had shrunk to a mere eleven weeks, the size limit jumped from 12 inches to 16, and the bag limit went from ten fish to four. 

The bait shops aren’t selling too many green crabs any more...

Which shows that waiting too long to adopt the best science is in the interests neither of fish nor of man.

For like a wrench, a hammer or a hacksaw—or any other tool in the box—even the best science isn’t much good to anyone unless it is actually used.

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