Sunday, November 30, 2014


It’s looking ever more likely that what once seemed like a modest yet meaningful win—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s vote to reduce striped bass harvest last October—was even more modest than it first appeared.

ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board seemed to be acceding to public demands that landings be cut and a 1-fish bag limit be adopted.  However, it is now clear that at least some of those who voted that way were merely blowing smoke in the public’s face.  Now that the smoke has cleared a bit, they are ignoring the overwhelming public sentiment for a single-fish bag, and seeking ways to let folks kill additional fish, at least when those folks are fishing from for-hire vessels.

I discussed the matter at length in a recent post, and don’t intend to rehash it all here. 

It’s now time to start thinking of the next steps in the dance—where we go and what we do when Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass proves to be another failed state management effort, and we have to step in again to try to recover the striped bass population.

I know that a lot of folks are thinking about just throwing up their hands and leaving the fight.  After all, if the big angler turnout and overwhelming call for a 1-fish bag didn’t move mountains this time, why is there any hope that the next time will be any better?

I know that feeling pretty well.

After being involved in the fishery management process for a few decades, I know what it feels like to lose.

But, first of all, remember that anglers didn’t lose this round at ASMFC.  Its Striped Bass Management Board did what we wanted.  It’s the states’ management systems that are letting us down.

We are looking at new fishing mortality reference points that, in the long term, should do the bass good.

We defeated the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions’ efforts to draw out the harvest cut over three years.

A lot of the Management Board members were and still are concerned with the integrity of the management plan and the management process.

And if our greatest worry does come to pass, and the striped bass stock fails to recover, we still have a good leg to stand on.

Right now, we need to be looking at Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, and more particularly, at Management Trigger 2, which reads

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [ten years].”
Because it is very likely that trigger will be tripped in a very few years.

Let’s start with a simple truth.

The biomass is probably below the threshold right now.

That’s a sobering thought, but the Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass included a chart (on page 11) which projected that the biomass would fall below threshold—that the stock would be technically overfished—this year.

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015.  After 2016, the probability is expected to decline slightly…If the fully-recruited [fishing mortality] decreases to the current Ftarget (0.180) and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point reaches 0.77 by 2015 and declines thereafter… [emphasis added]”
Based on that finding, the striped bass is already behind the eight ball.

Regulations in place during 2012 will not change until 2015; although we don’t have fishing mortality rates for 2013 and 2014, there is no reason to assume that, absent regulatory changes, those rates will be at least equal to the F=0.200 of 2012. 

In practice, fishing mortality was almost certainly higher in 2013 than it was in 2012; total landings in 2012 were estimated at a little over 19,500,000 pounds, while in 2013, that estimate jumped to more than 24,300,000.  Taking a more fish from a decreasing biomass will inevitably cause the fishing mortality rate to spike. 

We don’t have final figures for 2014 yet, but preliminary numbers show even more reason to be concerned.  In the first eight months of 2012, anglers landed about 14,000,000 pounds of striped bass.  That number jumped to over 17,000,000 pounds in the first eight years of 2013, and increased again to nearly 18,500,000 in the first eight months of 2014. 

The greater part of the 2014 increase can be attributed to a big kill of the immature and barely legal 2011 year class down in Chesapeake Bay, but it’s still bad news, and very possibly takes us to the third scenario envisioned in the Update,

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] 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.”
So given the trends in 2013 and 2014, there is an overwhelming likelihood that the stock will be overfished—below the spawning stock biomass threshold—next year.

Then, the only thing that needs to happen is for ASMFC to formally determine that there is a problem.

That may not happen right away.

Complete, benchmark striped bass stock assessments take place every five years.  Thus, we won’t see another one until late 2018, based on 2017 data.  That gives Addendum IV a long time to fail and adversely affect striped bass numbers.

However, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee has historically conducted interim “turn-crank” assessments in nearly every year.  Such assessments are far less formal and detailed than the benchmark, and merely plug annual harvest data into the model from the benchmark assessment, in order to update the results.

ASMFC’s striped bass website page shows some sort of assessment, benchmark or interim, for the years 2000-2005, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013.  However, due to a demand that the Technical Committee produce biological reference points unique to Chesapeake Bay, there will probably not be sufficient manpower available to do one in 2015.

Thus, we should begin petitioning our ASMFC representatives and demanding that an interim, “turn-crank” assessment be done in 2016.  

We won’t be asking for great detail, just an estimate of the size of the spawning stock biomass (although an estimate of 2015 fishing mortality, with the new regulations in place, would also be useful). 

And if the Technical Committee determines that the spawning stock biomass has dropped below threshold, and that Management Trigger 2 has tripped, we must insist that managers put in place a rebuilding plan that will restore the spawning stock to target levels within ten years.

Such a rebuilding plan will not allow the maneuvering and loopholes that we see today.

Because in order to have mature, spawning fish in the biomass, you have to have small fish first, and they’ve been lacking lately.  The average for the Maryland young-of-the-year index over the past 10 years was 10.4, below the long-term average of 11.7.  

Management measures sufficient to restore the striped bass stock to target levels, and not merely prevent current overfishing, will probably have to be a lot stronger than what we’re seeing today.

The question, of course, is whether the states and ASMFC’s state-based management system is up to the task of putting such measures in place.

As we come to the end of the Addendum IV process, we already see it failing the resource and the public, as the politically-connected for-hire fleet in New Jersey, Rhode Island and elsewhere seeks to undo, at the state level, conservation gains won by the public at ASMFC.

At the state level, there is nothing like the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to assure that overfishing is really prevented, or overfished stocks timely rebuilt.

In the end, there is only us, anglers with a burning desire to preserve and restore the fish that we seek, and to hand them down as our legacy to the next generations.

That will have to be enough.

And if we only hold firm, and don’t lose our faith, it can be.


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