Sunday, October 26, 2014
STRIPED BASS TEST ASMFC'S INTEGRITY
It’s not often when everything falls together and points toward a single, clearly correct course of action.
But that’s what we’re seeing right now, as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board is moving toward a landmark management decision next Wednesday.
We have a recent benchmark stock assessment—clearly the best available science—that calls for reducing the fishing mortality target from the current F=0.30 to F=0.18.
The same updated assessment warns us that even
“If the fully-recruited F decreases to the current Ftarget (0.180) and is maintained through 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [Spawning Stock Biomass] reference point [which denotes an overfished stock] reaches 0.77 by 2015 and declines thereafter.”
In advance of next Wednesday’s meeting, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee advised the Management Board that
“Reducing [fishing mortality] to the target in one year will be more beneficial to increasing [spawning stock biomass] and protecting strong year classes than reducing [fishing mortality] to the target in three years.”
ASMFC itself is guided by its Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter, which says
“It is the policy of the Commission that its [Interstate Fisheries Management Program] promote the conservation of Atlantic coastal fishery resources, be based on the best scientific information available, and provide adequate opportunity for public participation.”
Such Charter also notes that
“Management measures should focus on conservation,”
“Above all, [a fishery management plan] must include conservation and management measures that ensure the long-term biological health and productivity of fisheries resources under management. [emphasis added]”
In accord with those mandates, in 2003 the Management Board adopted Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which included the provision 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 it at or below the target within one year. [emphasis added]”
The stock assessment demonstrated that the fishing mortality rate has now risen above the target of 0.180 for more than two years, and female spawning stock biomass fell beneath the target a number of years to go—and continues to decline.
In hearings held over the past two months all along the striper coast, 81% of the people who made public comments urged the Management Board to adhere to the Amendment 6 mandate and make all of the needed harvest reductions within a single year. When all public comments were tallied—those sent in by mail, by fax and by e-mail, along with those made at the public hearings, the percentage of folks favoring Amendment 6’s one-year mandate increased to an astounding 93%.
So we have a stock assessment that tells us that fishing mortality must be reduced, and the Technical Committee advises that reductions should all be made in a single year.
The current management plan requires such action, and the public overwhelmingly wants it.
ASMFC’s policy, as set forth in its Charter, it to “promote the conservation of Atlantic coastal fishery resources,” and that Charter also says that ASMFC “must…ensure” the long-term health of the stocks that it manages.
Given all that, if ASMFC, as an organization, has any integrity at all, the outcome of next Wednesday’s meeting would seem to be predetermined. There will be harvest cuts, and they will be made in one year.
And that’s what’s going to happen.
If ASMFC has any integrity at all.
And that’s the thing that we have to worry about. Because, while I have great respect for the staff at ASMFC, which have a tough job and always try to do it surpassingly well, the various management boards—the Striped Bass Management Board right up there among them—are a different thing entirely.
On each management board, you have three representatives of each state. One is a state fisheries professional; the other two are appointees, and the great majority of the appointees either have a direct economic interest in one or more of the fisheries they are managing, or close personal and/or professional ties with people who do.
Being in that sort of position is difficult; it requires a good bit of personal integrity to discharge your duties in a manner that best serves the public interest, rather than your own interests or those of your friends, colleagues and business partners.
It’s made even more difficult when you know that the Management Board can do just about anything that it wants to, without legal constraints. Unlike federal fisheries management councils, there is no law to say that a management board must end overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks or follow the scientists’ advice. And unlike federal or even state management agencies, they know that their decisions, however bad they may be, will not be subject to judicial review.
So the question becomes very real: Will the Management Board vote in accordance with the science, the overwhelming majority of the folks who made comments and the policy of ASMFC itself, and impose the full harvest reductions in 2015?
Or will it breach the covenant that it made with the public when it adopted Amendment 6, violate the public trust and rewrite the Amendment in order to satisfy the small minority of stakeholders who would put the striped bass at risk in order to protect their own bank accounts?
Will the Management Board heed 81% of the people who attended the public hearings, or will they heed self-serving folks such as Capt. Robert Busby of the North Fork (New York) Captain’s Association, who wrote
“Of course, we would like to continue to see charter/party boat regulations be improved [sic] over normal recreational regulations, thereby giving people another reason to sail with us”?
Unfortunately, I suspect that there are members of the Management Board who would be willing to subordinate the majority of anglers to for-hire captains who want all of us to get less so that they can get more.
There are also undoubtedly members of the Management Board who will not only support, but actively promote, what is undoubtedly the most parochial and self-serving document of all, the so-called Chesapeake Bay Jurisdictions White Paper on Draft Amendment IV for the Striped Bass Management Plan.
That’s a document that can be described in a number of ways, but can be basically boiled down to say “If you folks really want a one-year harvest reduction out on the coast, we’ll go along, provided that you don’t apply those reductions to the big 2011 year class down here in the Bay. We want to beat up on those fish for another three years.”
Right now, I can’t know whether the Management Board will have the integrity to do what the science, the public and ASMFC policy demands.
I can't know whether they’ll turn their back on their obligations to the public and embrace the very small minority of people who believe that short-term economic concerns should trump the long-term health of the stock.
But I do know that Al Ristori, long-time angler, author, charter boat captain and member of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Advisory Panel got it right when he wrote
“the credibility of the ASMFC is at stake on this issue since the biological reference points for the species have been reached. Failing to take some action under these circumstances would be a serious failure.”
I don’t want to see the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board fail.
I want to see it embrace its obligation to do the right thing.
I will be doing my best to be at the meeting, so I can hear with my own ears and see with my own eyes whether the Management Board does what we want and expect it to do.
For when a course of action is as clear cut as that of the Management Board, making the decision is no longer a question of opinion, debate and discretion.
It is a question of basic integrity.
And I want to be there to see for myself just what the Striped Bass Management Board is made of.