Sunday, October 19, 2014
WE SPOKE; WILL ASMFC LISTEN?
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board will meet ten days from today.
In roughly 240 hours, we’ll know whether managers have taken meaningful steps to conserve and hopefully restore the Atlantic migratory striped bass stock, or whether they abandoned their obligation to the public at large and chose to pander to the small minority of people who profit from killing this public resource.
Late last week, ASMFC released some of the materials that the Management Board will—or at least should—consider when making their decision. Both a memorandum drafted by ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee and comments received during the public hearing process make two things very clear.
The new fishing mortality reference points established in the benchmark stock assessment should be adopted.
And we need to reduce harvest to or below the new fishing mortality target within one year.
The numbers are pretty striking.
Out of everyone who addressed the questions at public hearings, nearly 93% support adopting the new reference points, and 81% don’t want to change the current language in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which requires that the needed harvest reductions be achieved within just one year.
In the fractious world of the striped bass fisherman, where any two people are as likely as not to hold three different opinions, that level of agreement is striking—particularly when you realize that we’re not just talking about anglers’ views, but those of commercial fishermen and for-hire operators as well.
Things get even more remarkable when you realize that a majority of all respondents—a little over 52%--favor the most restrictive recreational option offered by the Management Board, a limit of one striped bass that must be at least 32 inches long.
In a perfect world, the support for the new fishing mortality reference points wouldn’t be too remarkable, as they represent the best available science—which is what reasonable people would hope is being used by the folks we entrust to manage our living marine resources.
However, as anyone who has entered the fisheries management arena knows, it exists in a world that is neither perfect nor perfectly rational. That unfortunate fact is reflected in the public hearing comments as well.
At the striped bass hearings, most of the irrationality was limited to a single event. Seven of the twelve dissenters showed up at the hearing in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, arguing that the reference points mandated in the new, peer-reviewed benchmark assessment shouldn’t be adopted because
“there is no problem with striped bass abundance and the science is flawed.”
(I always fantasize about getting all of these “the science is flawed” types together in a room, dropping copies of the stock assessment and the associated raw data on a table in front of them and asking them, very politely, if they could please help us out and show just where the flaws in the data resided—and then quickly stepping out of the way as they all roared something bellicose and likely obscene and then rushed back to the bar for another few beers…)
Opposition to the one-year harvest reduction was more evenly spaced up and down the coast; on the other hand, there were clear demographic patterns.
As Al Ristori, Striped Bass Advisory Panel member from New Jersey notes in his blog on nj.com,
“The commercials didn't want any further cuts or restrictions, while the recreational representatives were primarily in favor of reducing to a single bass at 28 inches or 32 inches…”
What Ristori didn’t explicitly note, because they weren’t widely represented on the Advisory Panel, was that a lot of the for-hire boats were also opposing the single-bass bag limit and single-year harvest reduction. But if you go through the meeting notes, the pattern becomes pretty obvious.
Traditional “six-pack” charters, that tend to hang dead fish on the racks by their docks when they return from an outing, largely oppose the conservation measures that have broad support among the fishermen themselves. Instead, they are pushing hard for a two-fish bag limit and, in most cases, a three-year recovery.
On the other hand, fly and light-tackle guides, along with a minority of six-pack operators, who promote a “quality fishing experience” rather than just dead fish on the dock, have been strongly supportive of taking the entire harvest reduction in a single year and, in the majority of cases, of a 1-fish bag and 32-inch minimum size. Charter operators in northern New England, where striped bass are already scarce, or in “destination” areas such as Block Island and Nantucket, also strongly supported conservation measures.
Such pro-conservation sentiments were shored up by the Technical Committee, which noted 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…”
“Although all the recreational management options achieve the required reductions, the [Technical Committee] has greater certainty in the percent reductions of simple management measures (e.g., changes in bag or size limits) relative to more complex measures (e.g., slot or trophy fish options).”
In the context of the current debate, that means a one fish bag and a minimum size of 28, 30 or 32 inches—just what almost all of the anglers are asking for.
So it’s pretty clear what the majority of the folks who commented on the issues want (more than 3,000 written comments submitted outside of the public hearing process have yet to be tabulated, but there is no reason to believe that they won't be at least as supportive of conservation measures as the comments made at the hearings).
The science, in the form of the benchmark stock assessment, is very clear.
So is the Technical Committee’s advice.
So will the Management Board go along?
The sad truth is, we don’t really know.
If striped bass were a federally-managed species, governed by the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, we could be certain that managers would do the right thing.
Magnuson’s National Standard Two requires that
“Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available,”
so we wouldn’t even be discussing whether the fishing mortality reference points from the benchmark assessment should be adopted. That would have been done back in 2013.
A federal management plan would have to
“contain…conservation and management measures…which are necessary and appropriate for the conservation and management of the fishery to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, and to protect, restore, and promote the long-term health and stability of the fishery. [emphasis added]”
And a plan governed by Magnuson would also have to
“specify objective and measurable criteria for identifying when the fishery to which the plan applies is overfished (with an analysis of how the criteria were determined and the relationship of the criteria to the reproductive potential of stocks of fish in that fishery) and, in the case of a fishery which the Council or the Secretary has determined is approaching an overfished condition or is overfished, contain conservation and management measures to prevent overfishing or end overfishing and rebuild the fishery. [emphasis added]”
So under the federal management system, when the update to the benchmark assessment found that
“If the current fully-recruited F (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the SSB reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015,”
meaning that the stock was very, very likely to be overfished next year, there would have been no room for debate.
Meaningful action would, in all likelihood, already have been taken. No one sitting around the management table would even think about uttering the words, “status quo.”
But at ASMFC, things are different.
Its Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter contains a section entitled “Standards and Procedures for Interstate Fisheries Management Plans” which says that
“Above all, [a fisheries management plan] must include conservation and management measures that ensure the long-term health and productivity of the fishery resources under management. [emphasis added]”
That’s a pretty high standard, and it might even be meaningful if ASMFC decisions were subject to the same sort of judicial review that applied to federal management decisions. But with no effective way yet found for a court to place limits on ASMFC’s exercise of discretion, it has proved pretty meaningless in practice, even though the Charter also clearly states that
“Conservation programs and management measures shall be designed to prevent overfishing and maintain over time, abundant, self-sustaining stocks of coastal fishery resources. In cases where stocks have become depleted as a result of overfishing and/or other causes, such program shall be designed to rebuild, restore, and subsequently maintain such stocks so as to assure their sustained availability inj fishable abundance on a long-term basis.”
It further states that
“Conservation programs and management measures shall be based on the scientific information available.”
However, as anyone familiar with the management plans for winter flounder, weakfish and tautog, not to mention northern shrimp or the southern New England stock of American lobster know, such nice words don’t really mean a lot when management boards choose to ignore them.
And that’s largely because there is one simple sentence in the Standards and Procedures section which says
“Social and economic impacts and benefits must be taken into account.”
And in the real world of ASMFC management plans, when those “social and economic impacts” collide with the scientific findings and/or the realities of conservation, which is generally the case, the social and economic impacts end up on top, just about every time.
They are not merely “taken into account.” They are generally the deciding factor.
But there have been exceptions.
Strong public outcry played a big role in convincing ASMFC to place restrictions on horseshoe crab harvest, and it’s pretty likely that it also led the Commission to eventually (after years of foot-dragging and ignoring the problem) to impose meaningful restrictions on the harvest of forage fish such as menhaden, shad and river herring.
So I’m not being completely naïve when I express hope that the strong public support for cuts in striped bass harvest will compel the Management Board to take meaningful action again.
But I’m not going to say what such action might be.
It will almost certainly represent a compromise between the handful of extremists pushing for status quo, the minority emphasizing the short-term economic benefits of a three-year phase in of reductions and the conservation-minded anglers who are calling for making the all harvest cuts in a single year, and imposing nothing less than a 1-fish bag and 32-inch minimum size on recreationally-caught stripers.
Beyond that, nothing is clear, except that we’re in the home stretch of a race that, for some of us, began about two decades ago, when we told managers that the liberal harvests proposed in Amendment 5 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, and echoed in Amendment 6, would cause too many bass to die.
Nearly twenty years later, the 2013 benchmark assessment showed that we had been right all along.
We can only hope that the Management Committee wants to be right as well.