Sunday, December 28, 2014


Actor Woody Allen allegedly said “Showing up is 80 percent of life.”

In the fisheries management arena, it might be more accurate to say “Sticking around is 80 percent of succeeding.”

Because in our world, things usually don’t happen overnight.

Consider the striped bass. 

When the stock began to collapse in the mid-1970s, it took a very long time before concerned anglers could even convince fisheries managers that there was a problem.  Here in New York, an organization called Save our Stripers toiled long and hard to convince state authorities that the 16-inch size limit that had prevailed for years needed to be raised in order to better protect the fish. 

It took them until 1983 to get a bill to the governor’s desk, and there was a very real fear that Mario Cuomo would veto the legislation out of misguided concern for the health of the Fulton Fish Market and the commercial fishing fleet.  Fred Schwab, who was a hardcore striped bass angler and an inspiring advocate for striped bass conservation, spent much of the year up in Albany, trying to get the bill signed into law.  He had just about given up when he learned that Cuomo had decided to sign the legislation, giving New York a 24-inch size limit, which was then one of the biggest on he coast.

But Fred Schwab’s long grind was only beginning.

A complete moratorium on striped bass harvest still lay in the future, as did the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s adoption of Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which was the management measure generally credited with kick-starting the striper’s recovery.

I didn’t meet Fred until 1995, after ASMFC had declared the striped bass stock “recovered” and adopted Amendment 5 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which would allow significantly increased levels of exploitation.  He was still right in the middle of the fight, trying to convince New York regulators to take a conservative approach to striped bass harvest, and not to allow anglers to kill two 28-inch fish every time they go out.  Party boats, charter boats and tackle shops all supported the bigger kill, and in the end New York adopted a cut-the-baby-in-half sort of approach, giving the for-hires two 28-inch fish, while everyone else could only land one.

Striped bass anglers were generally outraged, but after a couple of years that outrage turned to acceptance, and only a few of us continued to work for the striper.  Any hope of making a difference was pretty well done, because anglers attention spans had run out, and no one attended the hearings any more.

Half a dozen years later, ASMFC came out with yet another Amendment to the Management Plan, and the anglers returned—for a while.  This time, they came together under the slogan “Bring back the BIG bass,” a response to the decline in the size of the stripers since Amendment 5’s 2 @ 28” was adopted by most of the states.  

It was probably a Quixotic effort; there was no question that the striped bass population was still at healthy levels of abundance, and to ask that target fishing mortality levels be reduced from Ftarget=0.31 to something below 0.25—perhaps even below 0.20—in order to improve the age and size structure of the stock was just a couple of steps too far for managers more used to dealing with collapsed stocks and delayed rebuilding to take.

So once again there was a bustle of angler activity, and once again, everyone went away, disappointed and disillusioned, when ASMFC failed to heed their call.

Once again, there was insufficient angler infrastructure in place in most of the states to get anything meaningful done, and anglers were too impatient to build such infrastructure in preparation for the next chance to do good.

That chance came over a decade later—in this year that has almost reached its end—after a benchmark stock assessment informed managers that Ftarget should be reduced to 0.180.

The assessment vindicated our position on Amendment 6, that Ftarget=0.30 was far too high (in fact, it lead to overfishing the stock, as we now know that the overfishing occurs when F>0.219).  And once again, anglers came together from up and down the coast to fight for the health of the striped bass stock.

This time, armed with good science, they made progress.  

New, lower fishing mortality reference points were adopted, as was a 25% cut in landings.  But the foes of striped bass conservation never give up, and so fought a retrograde battle in which they argued that for-hire vessels—and maybe all anglers—should not be bound by the one 28-inch fish allowed by ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, but rather should be granted “conservation equivalent” regulations that would permit each angler to kill two bass.

There is a very good chance that the for-hires are going to get their way, and there is a real possibility that some states—including New York—might adopt a 2-fish bag for everyone.

That will surely make anglers angry.  They did everything right this time, turning out at public hearings and making it clear that the public overwhelmingly prefers a one-fish bag limit.

So the big question is, if the regulators effectively slap the anglers in the face, ignore their testimony and allow a two-fish bag, how will anglers react?

Will they do what they’ve done in the past and retreat, grumbling, to their lairs, to emerge a five or a dozen years later, when a new issue captures their attention?  Or will they channel their anger to start preparing for the next fight now, when there is time to pull together the contacts and the resources needed to actually win?

Because more fights are coming, perhaps sooner than we expect.

If we can convince the Striped Bass Management Board to order an interim stock assessment after the 2015 season, that assessment will likely find that the stock is overfished.  If that is the case, it will trip one of the Management Triggers in Amendment 6 and require the stock to be rebuilt to target levels in no more than 10 years.

Even if that effort fails, a new benchmark assessment will be done in 2018, and we need to be ready to respond to its findings.

Losing a management battle is discouraging.  I know that.  I’ve been there plenty of times.

But the key to winning such battles isn’t just “showing up.”  

You win by sticking around, learning from your losses and figuring out how to win the next time.

You can be sure that the party boats and the six-pack charters aren’t going anywhere.  They’ll be at every meeting and hearing, doing everything they can to maintain their kill.

We’re making a very big mistake if we’re not also there, to speak for the striper.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Charlie, thanks for fighting the good fight. The six packs will kill every last striper if given the chance.