Thursday, October 30, 2014
I entered the meeting room with some trepidation.
For the past year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had been debating the implications of the most recent benchmark assessment of the striped bass stock, and whether changes needed to be made to management measures. And for the past year, I and a host of other anglers who cared about the striped bass resource had been speaking to whoever would listen, arguing for conservative, science-based striped bass management.
For some of us, this was a new fight. For many others, it was the possible culmination of a debate that began back in 1995, when ASMFC declared the bass stock recovered and set annual catch limits that seemed far too high. For a few of us, gray-haired and long in the tooth, it was one more vital battle in a war that began in the seeming mists of time, when the bass collapsed in the late 1970s.
But whatever our experience, it was a battle we feared we might lose.
It shouldn’t have been that way. The science, the management plan and even ASMFC’s charter were all in our favor. Public opinion was overwhelmingly on our side.
But this was ASMFC, where a few dozen commissioners, most with no formal training in fisheries management and unbound by law or the courts, could ignore all that and vote as their whim and their wallets desired.
An influential commissioner from Maryland had already put a proposal on the table to overthrow a vital conservation provision in the management plan, arguing that “socio-economic impacts” justified such a change.
Ahead of the meeting, I had a quick talk with a commissioner I knew from New England, and he told me what I had suspected: From the talk at the dinner the night before, the outcome was truly in doubt. One or two votes could decide things.
A former commissioner caught me walking in the door, and said that even the vote of my home state of New York was in doubt.
And so the battle was joined…
It was soon apparent that the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions—Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission—were hoping to frustrate the process. It was also apparent that a few commissioners from a few other states wanted to see them succeed.
Their attack began well before the general debate, when they began a close questioning of the folks presenting the science to the Striped Bass Management Board. The facts were clearly against them, but as an attorney, I recognized their tactic. Like defense counsel in a capital case, they were trying to raise “reasonable doubt” about the stock assessment—just enough doubt to convince the panel to let the bad guy go free.
Adam Nowalsky, a charter boat captain and the legislative proxy from New Jersey, asked questions about retrospective bias in the assessment which suggested that it underestimated biomass and overestimated fishing mortality. His question was later echoed by Emerson Hasbrouck, governor’s appointee from New York, and Robert O’Reilly of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. But a Technical Committee representative made it clear that any biases that did exist were no worse than those in any other management plan.
Hasbrouck then asked whether the projections for stock recovery under the various options presented—which showed that making all harvest cuts in a single year would lead to the quickest recovery—were statistically similar when the uncertainty inherent in each calculation was considered. A Technical Committee representative conceded that they were, but Hasbrouck lost the point after Jim Gilmore, New York’s marine fisheries director, pointed out that the one-year option was the only one that might let managers know whether the new management measures were working before the next stock assessment was done.
And the Chesapeake jurisdictions kept hammering at the fact that a smaller population than we have today can still produce good year classes every now and then, asking the tech folks to confirm that was not true.
By the time that the voting started, what should have been a routine matter—accepting fishing mortality reference points from a peer-reviewed stock assessment that clearly represented the best available science—turned into a grudging, grinding retreat by the Chesapeake folks, that took far longer than it should have.
O’Reilly opposed accepting the science, calling the reference points “extremely conservative” and warning about the “ecological consequences” of high striped bass abundance—most particularly his concern that the striped bass will eat too many blue crabs (which got along with the stripers perfectly well for thousands of years, until the watermen that O’Reilly represents started to kill them).
Martin Gary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission questioned whether the spawning stock reference points in the assessment “are even achievable,” while Kyle Schick, proxy for Virginia’s legislative appointee, blamed declining striped bass catch not on a shrinking population, but on a poor economy and the effects of Hurricane Sandy.
But Paul Diodati, the marine fisheries director for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, called the assessment “one of the best I’ve seen” and just about everyone agreed. The reference points were adopted by a vote of 12 in favor and the four Chesapeake votes against.
It was harder than it should have been, but the striped bass won its first fight of the day.
After that, the Management Board addressed the core issue—how long it should take to reduce fishing mortality to the new, lower target.
The current management plan makes it clear that all reductions must be made in one year, and Diodati of Massachusetts made a motion to that effect. To no one’s surprise, O’Reilly of the PRFC quickly moved to amend, replacing one year with three, and thus began an hours-long grind.
In previous posts, I observed that the striped bass vote would test the credibility and integrity of ASMFC. Thus, I was pleased to see that there were many folks on the Management Board intent on honoring its commitment, including Richie White, governor’s appointee from New Hampshire, who forthrightly stated that the debate
“comes down to the credibility of the commission…I gave my word to the public at this time [when Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass adopted the requirement to reduce harvest within one year]”
Pat Keliher, marine fisheries director of the State of Maine, echoed those sentiments, saying that it was
“time to honor our commitment to the resource and to the public.”
Dr. Louis Daniels, fisheries Director of the State of North Carolina also stood on principle, saying
“We made a commitment in Amendment 6 and we need to stick with that commitment.”
Representative Sarah Peake, the legislative appointee from Massachusetts, opposed dragging the cuts out over three years, noting the overwhelming public support for making them all in one year and saying
“The public has expressed that they have a sense of urgency about this.”
Of course, the Chesapeake Bay states had no intention of giving up their fight to delay stock rebuilding, and they pulled out all the stops trying to make their case.
Schick of Virginia, perhaps remembering Richard Nixon’s conjuring of a “silent majority,” argued that the anglers providing public comment were just a small minority of the millions of people who fish for striped bass and who—if they had spoken—would have supported a three-year phase-in. A couple of dozen supporters of the 1 @ 32” Pledge responded by holding up bright yellow “1 @ 32 inches” signs, which clearly made Schick uneasy.
Dan Ryan, representing the District of Columbia, tried to elicit sympathy by arguing that the fishermen he represented only caught bass under 20 inches long, and did it from shore, claiming that if the harvest cuts were taken in a single year
“We will effectively eliminate the fishery for our shorebound anglers,”
who apparently need to pound on the 2011 year class before it matures.
Thomas O’Connell, the Maryland marine fisheries director who first put the three-year option into the draft addendum, began to realize that the tide had turned against his position, and asked for sympathy of another sort, saying that he knew that the Chesapeake states didn’t have the votes to prevail, but that he hoped that the rest of the states would view the three-year option as an “olive branch” offered up by the Bay states that he hoped would be accepted.
And just in case the olive branch wasn’t accepted, another Maryland commissioner, Russell Dize, proxy for the legislative appointee, assured the Management Board that he’d been a waterman for 55 years, and that the most striped bass that he’d ever seen in his life were swimming around out in Chesapeake Bay right now.
And, of course, those bass were eating up all of the crabs…
Someone, I don’t remember who, also argued that if people were required to release most of their fish, some of those released fish were going to die. Massachusetts’ Paul Deodati put the comment in perspective by noting that
“Eight or nine percent release mortality is a lot less than the 100% mortality from keeping the fish.”
In the end, New Jersey and Delaware joined with the four Bay jurisdictions, but the three-year proposal went the way of the dodo, with six in favor and the other ten against.
Still, the other states weren’t completely unsympathetic to those bordering Chesapeake Bay, and made it clear that a reasonable compromise would be considered. However, when O’Connell of Maryland proposed splitting the baby and taking two years to reduce harvest to target levels, neither the Management Board nor the audience, which was allowed to make limited comments, was particularly impressed, and the motion was ultimately withdrawn.
So O’Connell tried again, making a motion that would require coastal harvest to be reduced by 25% next season, but only require a 20.5% cut—calculated to reduce harvest to target within those two years—in the Bay. The compromise was unlikely to reduce overall harvest to target levels within one year, as the majority wanted, but the coastal harvest was so much larger than that in the Bay that the technical folks suggested that it probably wouldn’t take too much longer.
Still, there was plenty of wrangling, with Tom Fote, governor’s appointee from New Jersey, strongly objecting to a proposal that would allow the Bay jurisdictions to cut back less than the coast. There was some merit to that case, but in the end, the motion was overwhelmingly accepted, with only New Jersey and Delaware voting against.
The bass had won another round, although not as decisively. And they won another when every state but New York voted against allowing the transfer of commercial quotas, a proposal that, if it had passed, made it very likely that the commercial sector—which was already going to take a smaller real cut than the anglers—would have maintained its current level of harvest.
After that, things grew a lot less exciting. The 28-inch size limit was retained for both recreational and commercial fishermen, and the recreational bag limit was reduced to a single fish. However, as is typical in ASMFC management, states will be allowed to propose alternate measures deemed to have “conservation equivalency” with the proposal adopted.
That debate took a strange turn. One fish at 28 inches or more would reduce harvest about 31%, but the Management Board decided that states could achieve conservation equivalency with measures that only achieved the 25% reduction needed to reduce mortality to target within one year. Thus, the states who opt for conservation equivalency will be able to take a smaller cut than those which actually adhere to the measures that the Management Board approved.
So, in the end, ASMFC almost did the right thing, which is a lot better than what usually happens.
Still, in requiring just a 20.5% cut in Chesapeake Bay, and in making the 25% coastal commercial reduction from Amendment 6 quotas rather than from the reported landings, the actual reduction will be somewhere below 25%. Since ASMFC started out with just a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality to target within one year, even if the full 25% reduction was achieved, we’re left with a management plan that will probably fail to achieve its objective.
In addition, the decision to grant conservation equivalency to management measures that only reduce a state’s harvest by 25% could tempt a lot of jurisdictions to come up with ways to kill a second fish, which can hardly be good for a stock that is almost certain to be overfished by next year.
Given where a lot of us feared we’d end up going into the meeting, we’re not in a bad place right now, but the outcome of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board meeting really highlights the reasons why the federal fisheries management system, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s mandates, are far superior to those of ASMFC.
For if ASMFC had to abide by the Magnuson Act’s standards, the striped bass’ recovery would have begun on January 1, 2014—if not before. The fishing mortality reference points from the benchmark stock assessment would have been adopted more than a full year ago, and measures to reduce harvest to target, and to rebuild what will soon be an overfished stock, would have been adopted soon after.
There would have been no opportunity for states to try to game the system, using conservation equivalency, to kill more than one fish or reduce the minimum size. One striped bass of 28 inches or more would have been the law of the land in every state on the striper coast, applicable whether the angler fished from a private boat, a party or charter vessel, a bridge, the beach or a pier.
Striped bass would be governed by a single, uniform standard, wherever they happened to swim.
We’re not going to get to that point for quite a few years, if we ever do (and I think that we really should try).
In the meantime, striped bass anglers should be happy just with the fact that, for once, ASMFC almost got it right, that striped bass will have some real added protection next year, and that we’re now at a place where we can put pressure on our own state managers to be true to the votes that they cast at the meeting and give the striper a real chance to thrive.
Everyone who took part in this fight should feel proud.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
It’s not often when everything falls together and points toward a single, clearly correct course of action.
But that’s what we’re seeing right now, as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board is moving toward a landmark management decision next Wednesday.
We have a recent benchmark stock assessment—clearly the best available science—that calls for reducing the fishing mortality target from the current F=0.30 to F=0.18.
The same updated assessment warns us that even
“If the fully-recruited F decreases to the current Ftarget (0.180) and is maintained through 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [Spawning Stock Biomass] reference point [which denotes an overfished stock] reaches 0.77 by 2015 and declines thereafter.”
In advance of next Wednesday’s meeting, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee advised the Management Board 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.”
ASMFC itself is guided by its Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter, which says
“It is the policy of the Commission that its [Interstate Fisheries Management Program] promote the conservation of Atlantic coastal fishery resources, be based on the best scientific information available, and provide adequate opportunity for public participation.”
Such Charter also notes that
“Management measures should focus on conservation,”
“Above all, [a fishery management plan] must include conservation and management measures that ensure the long-term biological health and productivity of fisheries resources under management. [emphasis added]”
In accord with those mandates, in 2003 the Management Board adopted Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which included the provision that
“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that it at or below the target within one year. [emphasis added]”
The stock assessment demonstrated that the fishing mortality rate has now risen above the target of 0.180 for more than two years, and female spawning stock biomass fell beneath the target a number of years to go—and continues to decline.
In hearings held over the past two months all along the striper coast, 81% of the people who made public comments urged the Management Board to adhere to the Amendment 6 mandate and make all of the needed harvest reductions within a single year. When all public comments were tallied—those sent in by mail, by fax and by e-mail, along with those made at the public hearings, the percentage of folks favoring Amendment 6’s one-year mandate increased to an astounding 93%.
So we have a stock assessment that tells us that fishing mortality must be reduced, and the Technical Committee advises that reductions should all be made in a single year.
The current management plan requires such action, and the public overwhelmingly wants it.
ASMFC’s policy, as set forth in its Charter, it to “promote the conservation of Atlantic coastal fishery resources,” and that Charter also says that ASMFC “must…ensure” the long-term health of the stocks that it manages.
Given all that, if ASMFC, as an organization, has any integrity at all, the outcome of next Wednesday’s meeting would seem to be predetermined. There will be harvest cuts, and they will be made in one year.
And that’s what’s going to happen.
If ASMFC has any integrity at all.
And that’s the thing that we have to worry about. Because, while I have great respect for the staff at ASMFC, which have a tough job and always try to do it surpassingly well, the various management boards—the Striped Bass Management Board right up there among them—are a different thing entirely.
On each management board, you have three representatives of each state. One is a state fisheries professional; the other two are appointees, and the great majority of the appointees either have a direct economic interest in one or more of the fisheries they are managing, or close personal and/or professional ties with people who do.
Being in that sort of position is difficult; it requires a good bit of personal integrity to discharge your duties in a manner that best serves the public interest, rather than your own interests or those of your friends, colleagues and business partners.
It’s made even more difficult when you know that the Management Board can do just about anything that it wants to, without legal constraints. Unlike federal fisheries management councils, there is no law to say that a management board must end overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks or follow the scientists’ advice. And unlike federal or even state management agencies, they know that their decisions, however bad they may be, will not be subject to judicial review.
So the question becomes very real: Will the Management Board vote in accordance with the science, the overwhelming majority of the folks who made comments and the policy of ASMFC itself, and impose the full harvest reductions in 2015?
Or will it breach the covenant that it made with the public when it adopted Amendment 6, violate the public trust and rewrite the Amendment in order to satisfy the small minority of stakeholders who would put the striped bass at risk in order to protect their own bank accounts?
Will the Management Board heed 81% of the people who attended the public hearings, or will they heed self-serving folks such as Capt. Robert Busby of the North Fork (New York) Captain’s Association, who wrote
“Of course, we would like to continue to see charter/party boat regulations be improved [sic] over normal recreational regulations, thereby giving people another reason to sail with us”?
Unfortunately, I suspect that there are members of the Management Board who would be willing to subordinate the majority of anglers to for-hire captains who want all of us to get less so that they can get more.
There are also undoubtedly members of the Management Board who will not only support, but actively promote, what is undoubtedly the most parochial and self-serving document of all, the so-called Chesapeake Bay Jurisdictions White Paper on Draft Amendment IV for the Striped Bass Management Plan.
That’s a document that can be described in a number of ways, but can be basically boiled down to say “If you folks really want a one-year harvest reduction out on the coast, we’ll go along, provided that you don’t apply those reductions to the big 2011 year class down here in the Bay. We want to beat up on those fish for another three years.”
Right now, I can’t know whether the Management Board will have the integrity to do what the science, the public and ASMFC policy demands.
I can't know whether they’ll turn their back on their obligations to the public and embrace the very small minority of people who believe that short-term economic concerns should trump the long-term health of the stock.
But I do know that Al Ristori, long-time angler, author, charter boat captain and member of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Advisory Panel got it right when he wrote
“the credibility of the ASMFC is at stake on this issue since the biological reference points for the species have been reached. Failing to take some action under these circumstances would be a serious failure.”
I don’t want to see the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board fail.
I want to see it embrace its obligation to do the right thing.
I will be doing my best to be at the meeting, so I can hear with my own ears and see with my own eyes whether the Management Board does what we want and expect it to do.
For when a course of action is as clear cut as that of the Management Board, making the decision is no longer a question of opinion, debate and discretion.
It is a question of basic integrity.
And I want to be there to see for myself just what the Striped Bass Management Board is made of.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
The index came in at 11.0, which is just a little below the long-term average of 11.7.
Under normal circumstances, a young-of-the-year number that nearly reaches the long-term average is hardly worth noticing. It's merely what one would expect if all was well with the stock.
However, there are three things that make the 2014 more significant than the raw number suggests.
One is the fact that the most important factors in spawning success, a cold winter and a wet spring, were present last year, yet the index could barely struggle up close to the long-term average.
Another is the fact that, if you look at the 2014 number in context—as part of a multi-year average and not a stand-alone number, the bass just aren’t doing that well.
And the final and biggest factor that draws attention to the young-of-the-year figure is the way that Maryland is trying to spin what is, at best, a mediocre spawn into some sort of fisheries management victory, gushing that
“the 2014 juvenile index, a measure of striped bass spawning success in Chesapeake Bay, is 11.0, nearly equal to the 61-year average of 11.7. The results indicate a healthy level of reproduction for Maryland’s state fish.”
That’s the kind of talk you hear from someone who is trying to downplay the fact that the striped bass stock will likely be declared “overfished” in 2015, and is trying to find a way to water down fishery managers’ efforts to reduce fishing mortality and begin rebuilding the stock.
It’s the sort of thing that you’d expect to see coming out of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and Tom O’Connell, Director of its Fisheries Service, who has already said
“I think that it really comes down to a cost-benefit analysis…
“…I think…a 32 to 36 percent reduction is going to have large socio-economic impacts as well as potential ecological impacts. I think we don’t have a stock situation that is in dire need of protection…”
and spearheaded the effort to rewrite the management plan to allow phasing in harvest reductions over three years, instead of making them all in 2015.
We can expect the other “kick the canners” (which is what Capt. Dave Pecci, founder of the Save Our Stripers, calls Management Board members who continually strive to delay action to rebuild the stock) to quickly latch onto Maryland’s forced exuberance and use it in arguments to drag out—or completely set aside—reductions in fishing mortality.
We can only hope that a majority of Management Board members won’t be fooled by such sleight-of-hand.
Because, as mentioned above, conditions seemed right for a much better result, given the weather last winter and spring.
A good example of how weather affects spawning success can be seen in the very different young-of-the-year figures for 2011 and 2012. The winter of 2011 was cold, and led to favorably wet conditions in the spring; the result was an index of 34.58, the fourth-highest ever recorded. The winter of 2012, on the other hand, was one of unprecedented warmth; the result was an index of 0.89, the worst on record. Even during the last collapse, none were so low.
Granted, other factors can influence young-of-the-year production. A successful spawn may have been frustrated by poor survival of eggs, larvae or fry. Or conditions other than weather might have held spawning success down.
The take-away message is that even when the weather is good, other factors may lead to mediocre production. That gives little hope for a good year class when the winter is warmer than it should be.
And given the worldwide temperature trend, warmer winters are becoming the rule…
So clearly, in that context, the 2014 Maryland index gives little cause for celebration, and less cause to delay harvest cuts.
In other contexts, the index looks even worse.
Back in 1985, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass—the amendment that was ultimately responsible for bringing the stock back from a catastrophic collapse—it set a three-year rolling average for the Maryland index of 8.0 as a threshold indicating that the stock had begun to recover.
Until the three year average hit 8.0, ASMFC imposed restrictions on harvest designed to assure
“That the states prevent directed fishing mortality on at least 95% of the 1982 year class females, and females of all subsequent year classes of Chesapeake Bay stocks until 95% of the females of these year classes have an opportunity to reproduce at least once.”
The current three-year average, which includes the supposedly ‘healthy” 2014 spawn, is 5.9, and people are still arguing about whether to reduce fishing mortality to F=0.180, a lot higher than the Amendment 3 levels…
Certainly, there’s a big difference between rebuilding a collapsed stock and trying to rebuild a stock that has just slipped below the “overfished” threshold. But if the stock is declared “overfished” in 2015, do we believe that a three-year average index of just 5.9 is going to be enough to bring it back to health, without prompt and meaningful reductions in harvest?
And if we want to look at the intermediate-term trend, things still aren’t all that comforting. The 10-year average, which includes the dominant 2011 year class still comes in at a sub-par 10.4.
The trend of sub-par spawns is particularly troubling when you realize that the long-term average itself includes a built in “shifting baseline” provision.
As more and more below average spawning years are included in the index, the index will trend ever downward. Today, an “average” spawn would result in an index of 11.7; ten years ago, before the recent run below-average year classes, it would have been 12.1.
Not a big difference, to be sure, but still an unsettling trend with the potential to grow worse over time.
The Management Board meeting that will decide the striped bass’ fate is still six days away. There is still time for concerned anglers to warn their states’ ASMFC commissioners against finding reasons for undue optimism in this year’s Maryland spawn.
They must not be like the young boy of legend who was so filled with naïve optimism that his father finally decided that, for the child’s own good, he must be brought back to earth.
When that boy’s birthday came around, he came down from his bedroom early, knowing that a wonderful present must be awaiting him somewhere in the house. So he looked at his father expectantly, and his father told him what he wanted to hear, that his gift awaited him in the garage.
Excited and filled with expectation and wonder, the boy rushed outside and flung open the garage door, only to find a heap of manure. Upon seeing the pile, the child cried out in joy, jumping up and down and clapping his hands, finally shouting “With this much manure, there must be a pony around somewhere!”
Maryland spinning this year's index as good certainly deserves to be viewed as manure.
But there sure ain’t no pony around.
And if managers don’t look past Maryland’s spin, in a few years, there may not be any striped bass around either.
Sunday, October 19, 2014
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.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
As we get closer to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board meeting on October 29, anglers are understandably anxious about what the Management Board is going to do.
Will it act responsibly and impose a harvest reduction of at least 25% for the 2015 season? Or will it cave in to the demands of some industry voices, and favor short-term economic interests over the public interest in a healthy stock?
Along with that worry, there’s one more that has come up throughout the debate. And it’s not going to go away.
Even if the Management Board does the right thing, will states try to game the system and get a leg up on their neighbors by invoking the concept of “conservation equivalency?”
Conservation equivalency is one of those concepts that’s unique to ASMFC.
You don’t generally see it in the federal system. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s National Standard Three requires that
“To the extent practicable, an individual stock of fish shall be managed as a unit throughout its range, and interrelated stocks of fish shall be managed as a unit or in close coordination.”
That’s usually interpreted to mean that, in federal waters, regulations will be the same throughout the stock’s range.
There are a few exceptions.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Fishery Management Plan for the Dolphin and Wahoo Fishery of the Atlantic does not impose a size limit for dolphin on most states’ anglers. However, in order to avoid conflict with regulations in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, anglers landing dolphin in those states must abide by the relevant state’s minimum size limit.
And in the Gulf of Mexico’s troubled red snapper fishery, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council tried to impose seasons of different lengths on anglers from different Gulf states, in order to compensate for disparate size limits, bag limits and seasons adopted in state waters. However, that effort was frustrated by a federal court, which found that it violated National Standard Four of the Magnuson Act, because it discriminated between the residents of the affected states.
However, at ASMFC, the idea of states imposing different but supposedly “equivalent” regulations has a long, if somewhat checkered, history.
ASMFC’s Charter specifically permits it, saying that if a management board chooses to permit conservation equivalency to apply to any management plan, such management plan must contain
“procedures under which the states may implement and enforce alternate management measures that achieve conservation equivalency.”
Over the years, that provision has been applied pretty liberally.
The most controversial application of conservation equivalency was undoubtedly in the summer flounder fishery, where each state was given its own share of the recreational allocation and required to come up with some combination of size limit, bag limit and season that—again in theory—kept its anglers from exceeding their quota.
The system didn’t work.
Neighboring states had wildly different regulations. Disgust and anger flared when anglers fishing on one side of a state border were forced to release fluke that were undersized for them, but were a couple inches over the limit for anglers in another boat, who were fishing a just a few yards away, but on the other side of the border.
Summer flounder management board meetings became less an exercise in conserving and managing the stock and more an effort by each state’s commissioners to protect their share of the fishery and, if possible, grow that share at the expense of their neighbors.
And the whole thing was pointless, because they were all fishing on the same stock of fish, that swam where they chose without regard for state borders.
That problem was fixed, at least temporarily, by the adoption of regional management in 2014, but there is no guarantee that it won’t rear its head up again next year.
In other fisheries, conservation equivalency didn’t arouse such passions, but it still didn’t always make sense.
In the scup fishery, for example, the four states that share most of the harvest, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts adopt a similar set of regulations. That is a good thing, because they’re fishing on the same stock of scup, and managing on a regional basis helps smooth out the regulatory swings that seem endemic to state-by-state management.
However, the states from New Jersey south fish by different rules, and that’s where the problems set in.
In New York, for most of the season, anglers may keep 30 scup at least 10 inches long, and the season runs from May 1 through the end of the year. However, in New Jersey, anglers may keep as many as 50 scup no less than 9 inches long, and the season runs from January 1 through February 28, and from July 1 through December 31.
Boats running south out of Long Island ports, or southeast out of Staten Island or Sheepshead Bay, often fish on the same wrecks as vessels that run east out of New Jersey. Two boats might be anchored within easy sinker-throwing distance of one another, but the anglers on the New York boat may take only 30 10-inch fish compared to the Jersey boats’ 50 fish at 9 inches. In January and February, the Jersey boats may still load up while the New York boats can’t retain any scup at all; in May and June, that situation is reversed and the Jersey boats must go empty while the New York boats score.
From a conservation and management perspective, that’s pretty hard to defend.
So some folks are concerned that we’re going to have a plethora of regulations governing the migratory population of Atlantic striped bass.
To some extent, we already do.
Maine wanted to kill immature fish, and accepted a 1-fish bag limit in order to make its 20 to 26-inch or over 40-inch slot “equivalent” to two at 28 inches. New York didn’t want its commercial fishermen to put big, PCB-laden fish from the Hudson River into the stream of commerce, and traded a 24 to 36-inch slot for a reduced commercial quota. And Connecticut and New Jersey, which are “gamefish” states with no legal commercial harvest, translated unused commercial quota into a bigger recreational kill.
But today, with regulations as restrictive as one fish at 32 inches being discussed, I’m hearing a lot of concerned talk about states turning to conservation equivalency to frustrate the spirit, if not the letter, of any harvest reductions.
The concern comes from two camps. There are the conservation-minded anglers who don’t want to see the spawning stock threatened by “equivalent” regulations that raise the bag limit above a single fish. Then there are their polar opposites, the for-hire boats who support a big kill, and fear that “equivalent” options might lure meat-hungry customers away.
The concerns are not groundless.
Right now, we’re looking at a striped bass population that features big gaps between dominant—or even average—year classes. The 2008 and 2009 year classes, which will provide the just-legal fish in 2015, were below average in size; the last dominant year class was 2003, and those fish will be about 40 inches long next season.
It’s not impossible that one or more states will decide that they can achieve conservation equivalency by adopting a 2-fish bag limit, for everyone or perhaps just for their for-hire boats, and a size limit somewhat higher than the one set by the Management Board.
If the Management Board adopted a 1-fish bag and a 28-inch minimum size, two fish at 33 inches would probably be deemed equivalent.
That sounds like a big step up, but since there has only been one average year class (2007) between 2005 and 2011, it probably wouldn’t have much effect on harvest, since the 2005s would be about 36 inches long. On paper, two at 33 inches might look “equivalent” to one at 28, but on the water, taking account of the largely missing year classes, it would probably result in a lot more dead fish.
That would be a bad thing, and would largely frustrate efforts to reduce fishing mortality, which already have a 50% probability of failure.
In New Jersey, giving the unused commercial harvest currently allocated to its “bonus fish” program to the for-hire landings could give its boats a second fish and competitive advantage over boats in neighboring states. Coupled with an increased size limit, it might be enough to get a second fish for everyone.
Conservation equivalency would probably be less of a problem if the Management Board opts for a 32-inch minimum size, because the size limit associated with a 2-fish bag could become prohibitively large.
Unfortunately, there’s probably little that we can do about the conservation equivalency issue.
In theory, the Management Board could decide that conservation equivalency won’t apply to striped bass. But you’ll probably see your house get hit by a meteor before you see conservation equivalency banned. The ASMFC commissioners are just too used to the concept, have all used it when it served their purposes, and would be reluctant to see their discretion to use it taken away.
So the best we can probably do is to admit that we live in an imperfect world, and try to convince our state fisheries managers that the best way to rebuild the striped bass is to manage it under one set of uniform regulations throughout its range, and not permit state-by-state exceptions to undermine the management process.
It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best one that we have.
Because conservation equivalency, as flawed as it may be, isn’t going away any time soon.