Sunday, October 5, 2014
THE CRUMBLING FAÇADE: STRIPED BASS A FLAWED MODEL FOR FISHERY MANAGEMENT
A few days ago, I came across a blog written by Steve Kline, Director of Government Relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The topic was striped bass, and when it comes to stripers, there’s no question that Kline understands just what’s going on.
“For a decade, the striped bass spawning stock biomass has been falling, with a variety of factors, including habitat quality, nutritional issues and disease, all playing a role. But fishing pressure has not followed the downward trend. This means that striped bass may be subject to a fishing pressure that is unsustainable, promising very real problems for the fishery in the not too distant future.
“There is no better way to ensure a crisis than by seeing one coming and doing nothing. While perhaps not a crisis today, a problem exists in striped bass country that requires action. Some combination of bigger minimums, reduced creels and/or shorter seasons are all on the table as fishery managers attempt to get out in front of a catastrophe in a major recreational fishery. The most aggressive steps will likely assure the best results, putting the fishery back on track in the shortest order. Of course, in exchange for maintaining the status quo today, some will champion a tepid response that kicks even tougher choices further down the road. Recreational anglers should reject this short-sightedness and support what the science indicates needs to happen.”
It’s hard to disagree with those comments. They appear to be right on the money.
Which is a little curious, given some of the positions taken by his employer, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and some of the organizations that help steer TRCP’s policies with respect to salt water fisheries management.
We just need to look at TRCP’s magnum opus on the subject, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries. That report holds out the striped bass story as a model for fisheries management, whether on the federal or state level, noting that
“The NMFS should manage recreational fisheries based on long-term harvest rates, not strictly on poundage-based quotas. This strategy has been successfully used by fisheries managers in the Atlantic striped bass fishery, which is the most sought-after saltwater recreational fishery in the nation…”
But as Kline points out, striped bass management, at least in the past decade, hasn’t been all that successful. Biomass is falling—if we believe the chart on page 14 of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Public Comment, it has already fallen—below the threshold that defines an overfished stock. Few active striped bass anglers doubt that they are, and have for some years been “subject to a fishing pressure that is unsustainable, promising very real problems for the fishery in the not too distant future.”
And a lot of us who have been active advocates for responsible striped bass management have been appalled to hear more than a few members of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board support “a tepid response that kicks even tougher choices further down the road.”
That’s no way to manage a fishery, despite what the TRCP report might say.
That report extols managing a fishery on the basis of “long-term harvest rates.” But it’s pretty silent on what constitutes “long-term” or what you do when a rate is demonstrably too high.
In the case of striped bass, the answer seems to be that you delay and attempt to do nothing.
Back in March 2011, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, in response to a noticeable decline in the striped bass population and a sharp drop in recreational catch, particularly in northern New England, decided to move forward with an addendum to the management plan which would reduce harvest and hopefully rebuild the population.
Although the motion to begin that addendum passed by a vote of twelve to two (with two abstentions), not everyone was happy with such an outcome. Tom Fote, the governor’s appointee from New Jersey, tried to derail the addendum, saying
“We have a success story. We have triggers in [the management plan]. I’m waiting to see the triggers. It would be like me coming in and saying on summer flounder or any other species, well, we think we’re anticipating that the stock is going to crash in two years and now we’re going to jump—I don’t think that’s the right message to send to the public.”
Fote clearly didn’t care for the idea of stepping in and trying to avert a crisis—his words clearly convey his belief that if the stock is in danger of crashing “in two years”, managers shouldn’t “jump” now, but rather should wait for a crash before taking action.
Although Fote lost that March 2011 vote, he ended up having the last laugh eight months later, when the Striped Bass Management Board decided to defer any action on the addendum until after the benchmark stock assessment was completed in late 2013.
But then his story changed when one of the “triggers” he spoke about was actually tripped.
Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass requires that, when the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target for two consecutive years, and the female spawning stock biomass drops below target for one, the fishing mortality rate must be reduced within one year. The 2013 Atlantic Striped Bass Benchmark Stock Assessment and the Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment Using Final 2012 Data demonstrate that has already happened, but Fote is still opposing conservation measures.
When the benchmark stock assessment was presented to the management board in October 2013, he began his fight against mandated harvest restrictions by casting aspersions on the science and on the people who want to conserve the striper, saying
“In my estimation, we’ve been here when the sky is falling and a whole bunch of people yammering. I mean, it was Maine sitting at the table for years yammering and they had a good year on striped bass. Whether fish come inshore or not depends on water temperature and with the bait inshore a lot of times, and that is what it affects especially with the EEZ closed. We see the effects of this happening.
“…People have been pushing for closing this or doing something. The people that basically send the e-mails are the people who want to do that. The people that are out fishing a lot times [sic], which is a majority of the fishermen I go around and talk to, they’re not ready to jump through this type of hoop. I really think that we have some real concerns here.”
Suddenly, once the triggers were tripped, the man who was “waiting to see the triggers” stopped talking about triggers altogether. Now he opposed taking expedited action to respond to the triggers being tripped because
“…This is not a minor change. It affects a lot of people’s livelihoods, it affects a lot of people the way they do business. It is going to have a huge impact on the recreational fishing industry up and down the coast. I think that this is too big to just do an addendum”
He argued that a full amendment—which would take far more time than an addendum to complete—was the proper response to the stock assessment; if the management board agreed with him, harvest reductions would be delayed that much longer.
Fote failed to convince a majority of the management board, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t a number of management board members who wanted to delay the process.
Thomas O’Connell, a fisheries manager from Maryland, moved to delay harvest reductions by changing the language of the Amendment 6 trigger, which required fishing mortality to be reduced to or below the target level within one year. O’Connell wanted to extend that deadline to three years because
“…a 32 to 36 percent reduction is going to have large socio-economic impacts…”
Fote and a number of other management board members jumped on that bandwagon, adding a phased-in three-year reduction to the options in the draft addendum.
So now, fully a year after the benchmark stock assessment called for reductions in both target and actual harvest levels, anglers and biologists are still holding their collective breath to see whether the management board will, in Kline’s words, “support what the science indicates needs to happen” when it meets on October 29.
Clearly, there are some real problems with the current approach to striped bass management. So far, Kline is the only person at TRCP to come right out and admit it, although I strongly suspect that he’s not the only one who feels that way. He’s merely the only one honest enough to admit the truth.
The rest still rally around the concept of managing other recreationally important species “like striped bass,” even though the entire concept is nothing more than an effort to sidestep federal fisheries law, with its requirements that the best available science be followed, that overfishing be stopped and overfished stocks be rebuilt, and replacing it with state-based management, which is far less rigorous and much more concerned about supporting the near-term incomes of fishery-dependent businesses.
In many ways, the whole debate centers around red snapper, a species that is still a long way from being rebuilt, and is subject to some very severe harvest reductions that are making many anglers unhappy.
The Center for Coastal Conservation, a large recreational fishing and boating trade organization that casts an influential shadow on TRCP, supporting legislation that would turn red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico over to the states.
That sort of short-sighted effort doesn’t do the fish or the anglers any good in the long run, which is probably why Kline noted that “Recreational anglers should reject…short-sightedness and support what the science indicates needs to happen.”
For the red snapper regulations, as unpopular as they might be, are based on a peer-reviewed stock assessment that was just released last year, which represents the best available science relating to the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery.
Rejection of those regulations, and the entire federal regulatory framework, in favor of state management—managing snapper “like striped bass”—would be a rejection of Kline’s proposition that anglers should support the science.
It would be equally wrong to manage red grouper, winter flounder, tautog or Atlantic cod—or any other species—with the same kind of delays and dissembling that has been a hallmark of the striped bass management process.
Fisheries management should be a purely scientific endeavor; nothing else can assure America of healthy fish stocks now and well into the future.
Neither providing transient economic benefits for boatbuilders or the folks who import our fishing tackle from China, nor providing whatever temporary political benefits can accrue from allowing anglers to kill more fish than they should will get the job done.
Thus, it’s heartening when a high-ranking figure at TRCP acknowledges that striped bass management is not a panacea, that it has failed to effectively rein in harvest and that, if the fishery is to be preserved, anglers must support whatever regulatory measures are dictated by the science.
It would be even more heartening if all of the other folks at TRCP acknowledged that simple truth.