Thursday, November 20, 2014
STRIPED BASS BAIT-AND-SWITCH
I wish that I didn’t have to write this at all.
But things need to be said, and maybe it’s right that I’m saying them now, in November, with the big Christmas shopping spree poised to begin.
In one more week, Black Friday shoppers will descend on the malls, some lured by ads promising wonderful deals on clothes, smartphones and TVs.
And when a lot of those shoppers get to those malls, they will find the sale items gone, and learn that the deals that had drawn them were “limited to items in stock.”
But, ever helpful, the stores will be willing to sell them all something else, even if it is far less attractive and comes at high cost.
When that sort of thing happens in shopping centers and malls it’s called “bait and switch.” It gets consumer advocates riled, and is just plain illegal in many states.
When that sort of thing happens at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, it’s called “conservation equivalency.” It pleases the fish hogs, and is clearly endorsed in the ASMFC Charter.
Striped bass fishermen are learning about the ASMFC’s version of bait-and-switch right now, and they’re learning the hard way.
Those striped bass fishermen have long been complaining about a decline in the striped bass population, and, most particularly, in the number of big female spawners. They have been asking ASMFC to cut back on landings to let the bass stock rebuild.
Those pleas fell on mostly deaf ears until, a little over a year ago, ASMFC received a benchmark stock assessment that confirmed what the anglers were saying. The fishing mortality target and the threshold that defined overfishing were both set too high. Landings needed to come down. And even under the best possible conditions, the stock is almost certain to be overfished in 2015, and for some years thereafter.
Finally, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board began to take action.
It was grudging action, to be sure, but things slowly ground forward.
There were public hearings, and chances for comments to be mailed in. Anglers responded in droves. Thousands of anglers made themselves heard, and the overwhelming majority called for a one-fish bag limit, and a minimum size somewhere between 28 and 32 inches.
On October 24, the Management Board voted to adopt new striped bass regulations, maintaining the 28-inch minimum size and dropping the bag limit to a single fish.
Anglers went to bed happy that night, believing that they had won a victory. I have to admit that I was quite pleased.
And it was a big but…
The Management Board also said that states could adopt alternate regulations that provided “conservation equivalency.” Moreover, that conservation equivalency didn’t have to equal a 31% harvest reduction, as the 1 fish at 28 inches did; it merely had to equal the 25% reduction that would supposedly be enough to reduce fishing mortality back to the target.
It was a little strange, because states that opted for conservation equivalency would be able to kill more fish than those who stuck with the regulations that were actually adopted.
And yes, it was an omen.
Because last Monday, representatives of the coastal states between Massachusetts and Delaware held a conference call to discuss adopting the same regulations throughout the region and to discuss conservation equivalency.
All of a sudden, striped bass managers were pulling their own bait-and-switch.
A good chunk of the states that voted at the Management Board meeting, and acted as if they had heeded anglers’ calls for a one-fish bag, were having second thoughts. Now that all of the excitement had ebbed, and few were paying attention, they were talking about conservation equivalency and continuing to kill two fish per man.
To be fair, not all were on board. The push for two fish is being driven by New Jersey and Rhode Island. From all that I hear, New York doesn’t like the idea, and the other states fall somewhere in between.
New Jersey opposed one fish all along, and was one of only two states (the other was Delaware) to vote against one 28-inch bass. And since, regardless of species, New Jersey is always conniving for ways to let its anglers kill more and smaller fish, it’s position was hardly unexpected.
Up north, Rhode Island is driving the action. Apparently, it couldn’t care less that its anglers asked for one bass. Rhode Island’s sole concern seems to be its for-hire fleet which, like so many such fleets, is still struck in troglodyte times when only dead fish are a gauge of success.
Unfortunately, greed is a metastatic disease, no less so than cancer, and when one state kills more fish, everyone else wants to kill more fish, too. If Rhode Island gives its for-hires two bass, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts are likely to do the same.
There are so few for-hire operators and so many anglers, that you might be wondering why such a short, stubby tail would be wagging the whole recreational dog. Well, I understand your confusion, because I’m wondering, too…
But what I’m not wondering about is how much those for-hire boats kill.
Last year, in my home state of New York, anglers made about 950,000 trips in search of striped bass, and killed about 375,000 fish. About half of those trips—more than 450,000—were made by surfcasters, while fewer than a quarter—just 191,000—were made on party and charter boats.
But when you look at the landings, nearly two-thirds of the fish—235,000 out of 375,000—were killed by the for-hires.
Giving the for-hires two fish when other anglers only get one will only make that disparity worse.
And that’s the good news…
The bad news is that “conservation equivalency” is largely a myth, and giving the for-hires (or even worse, everyone) two bigger fish rather than one at 28 inches, isn’t going to reduce the kill very much.
That’s because, to calculate conservation equivalency, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee looked backwards, to what people caught in 2013. They assumed that the size and age structure of the striped bass stock will be the same in 2015 and beyond, and that’s just wrong.
We can never forget (as the Technical Committee apparently did) that the striped bass stock is shrinking because spawning has been poor. Compared to a healthy population, there are relatively few smaller fish, and a disproportionate number of big ones.
Based on 2013 figures, allowing anglers to keep one 28-inch bass has about the same conservation impact as allowing folks to keep two 33-inch fish. Here in New York, about 44% of the bass landed in 2013 were between 28 and 33 inches long, with fish from the above-average 2005 and 2007 year classes accounting for more than half of the total.
But if we look ahead to 2015, the 2005 year class will average about 35 inches long, and all of the other above-average year classes in the fishery, except for 2007 (which was only slightly above average) will be even larger. With very few fish between 28 and 33 inches long, raising the size limit to 33 inches won’t make that much of a difference.
It will be better than two fish at 28 inches, but not by much.
To suggest that it will reduce 2015 and 2016 harvest by at least 25%, and have “conservation equivalency” to one 28-inch fish in those years is ludicrous.
Thanks to conservation equivalency, ASMFC once again finds itself with a management plan that is more likely to fail than succeed.
Even under the best assumptions, the proposed 25% harvest reduction had only a 50-50 chance to cut harvest to target levels by the end of next year.
After the Management Board decided to base commercial harvest on the Amendment 6 quota rather than on actual landings, those chances got smaller.
They shrunk a little more after the decision to cut Chesapeake Bay landings by just 20.5%, instead of the full 25.
Now, if the states adopt one of the conservation equivalency proposals, the chances of getting harvest back down to target will become even slimmer. Maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll be one in three.
Our fish—and, in the long term, our fishermen—deserve better than that.
In the short term, we can hope that folks from New York and the other rational states can convince their recalcitrant colleagues to reject conservation equivalency.
In the long term, as I’ve repeated before, we need a long-lasting solution.
We need to end ASMFC’s tolerance of “conservation equivalent” measures that allow states to game the system and kill more fish than the stocks can withstand.
We need to set some limits on management boards’ discretion, and force them to adopt plans that are more likely to succeed than to fail.
We need to compel ASMFC to end overfishing and timely rebuild overfished stocks.
In short, we need legislation that will compel ASMFC’s fishery management plans to adhere to the same standards that currently bind federal fisheries managers.
Call it a consumer protection act for the fish stocks, that will stop bait-and-switch in its tracks.