Thursday, January 8, 2015


Late last month, the American Sportfishing Association issued a release in which it said that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s recent efforts to reduce striped bass harvest was one of the

“2014 Top Recreational Fishing Advocacy Accomplishments”.
It noted that

“ASA and Keep America Fishing strongly advocated for this harvest reduction.  The reduction will help to safeguard this very popular and economically important fishery from overfishing which could trigger drastic restrictions on recreational fishing.”
But the reason for all of ASA’s happy hyperbole is a long way from clear, when you stop to think about what really occurred.

Back in October of 2013, the ASMFC received a peer-reviewed, benchmark stock assessment that stated, in no uncertain terms, that too many striped bass were being killed, and that overfishing had occurred repeatedly over the past decade.  The striped bass stock was quickly declining, and would almost certainly be overfished by 2015.

And ASMFC did…nothing.

A few of the folks who sat on its Striped Bass Management Board tried to take action, but at least an equal number pushed back, and in the end, the Management Board agreed to…talk about things in another four months.  At which point they agreed to talk a little more four months after that.

When all was said and done, it took ASMFC a full year before it agreed to incorporate the best available science into its striped bass management plan.

That seems a bit slow… 

And while the Management Board debated, fishermen continued to kill too many bass, and the stock came ever closer to being overfished.

Of course, once the Management Board accepted the benchmark assessment, it still had to do something to reduce the number of bass being killed.

Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass clearly states that when harvest exceeds target levels for two years in a row, and abundance falls below its target in one of those years, the Management Board “must” adjust management measures to reduce harvest within one year.

ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee and Plan Development Team put together a proposed set of management measures that would theoretically reduce harvest by 25%.  Such a reduction would provide a mere 50% chance of reducing fishing mortality to the target by the end of 2015.

But even such a plan, that was as likely to fail as succeed, was too much for the Management Board, which chipped away at the proposed harvest cuts and increased the chances of failure.

First, they upped commercial landings.

Instead of requiring commercial fishermen to take a 25% reduction from what they actually caught, the Management Board based the cut on the quota.  Since, coastwide, commercial fishermen don’t land their full quota each year, that change meant that the commercial reduction would be significantly less than 25%.  Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass described it as

“Option B16.  Takes a 25% reduction from the Amendment 6 quota.  This option does not achieve the proposed 25% reduction from 2013 harvest if all states harvest all of their available quota.  However, this option may achieve some level of reduction from 2013 harvest if the fishery performs similar to previous years.  [emphasis added]”
That pretty well says it all, although it doesn’t mention that if all of the quota was landed, harvest would actually exceed that of 2013.

So the 25% reduction—and the plan’s chances of succeeding--were already at risk.

Chances of success dropped even further when the Management Board decided to exempt all Chesapeake Bay striped bass fisheries from the 25% reduction, and allowed them to cut landings by just 20.5%.

And once the Management Board was done, the states stepped in, taking advantage of “conservation equivalency,” the notion that a state may adopt regulations other than those recommended by ASMFC, provided that such states can demonstrate that, in theory, they have a similar conservation benefit.  

That’s all that the various for-hire fleets needed to hear, as they began lobbying their state fisheries managers to come up with arguments “proving” that killing two dead stripers per trip, of some alternate size, won’t do more damage than taking just one.

And thus we have with what the American Sportfishing Association deems a “Top Recreational Fishing Advocacy Accomplishment”—a management plan that took too long to adopt, won’t prevent the stock from becoming overfished (and contains no measures to actually rebuild it) and is more likely to fail than succeed in its stated goal of reducing fishing mortality to the target level by the end of 2015.

That doesn’t sound like much of an “achievement” to me.

And yet, there is irony here.

For if striped bass were managed by a federal fishery management council instead of ASMFC, what the American Sportfishing Association is calling a “Top Recreational Fishing Advocacy Accomplishment” wouldn’t have required any advocacy effort at all.  A far better management plan would have been produced by such council simply by applying the law, and it would have happened sooner, as well.

If striped bass were managed pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, this is what would have occurred:

First, there would have been no debate about whether the best available science should be used for management.  As soon as the benchmark stock assessment passed peer review, it would have been adopted as a matter of course, with no debate and no vote.  In October 2013, and not a year later.

Then, because Magnuson’s National Standard One states that

“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing…”
harvest reductions would have been imposed right away, for the 2014 season.  And those reductions would, as a matter of law, have had to have no less than a 50% chance of reducing harvest to target by the end of that year.  There would have been no break for the commercial fleet, and no break for the folks in Chesapeake Bay.  Instead, we’d be looking at nothing less than a 25% reduction across the board, and because scientific and management uncertainty also need to be figured into federal catch limits, the reduction may have been a lot bigger than that.

And things wouldn’t even end there.

“If the current fully-recruited F (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the {spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015.”
That means that there’s an 86% chance that the stock will become overfished this season.  

Federal law requires that a fishery management plan

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 if striped bass were managed under the Magnuson Act, steps would already have been taken to start rebuilding the stock.  We’d be a full year into the ten-year rebuilding period right now.

That would put us, and the bass, in a lot better place than we are under the weak ASMFC management plan that ASA calls a “Top Recreational Fishing Advocacy Accomplishment.”

But here is where the irony kicks in.

The American Sportfishing Association is actually trying to weaken the Magnuson Act, so that overfishing can continue and overfished stocks don’t have to be rebuilt so quickly, in order to provide greater economic returns to the recreational fishing industry.

In a press release dated May 29, 2014, ASA noted, with respect to Rep. Doc Hastings’ so-called “Empty Oceans Bill,” which would have seriously weakened the conservation and rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson Act, that

This bill includes several provisions that we support, such as easing the strict implementation of annual catch limits…”
The American Sportfishing Association is also one of the foremost supporters of, and original contributors to, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s A Vision for Managing America’s Salt Water Recreational Fisheries, which states that

“The Magnuson-Stevens Act currently states that the timeline for ending overfishing and rebuilding fisheries ‘be as short as possible’ and ‘not exceed 10 years,’ with a few limited exceptions to allow for longer timeframes.  While some stocks can be rebuilt in 10 years or less, others require longer generation times, or factors other than fishing pressure may prohibit rebuilding in 10 years or less.
“…Instead of having a fixed deadline for stocks to be rebuilt, the [National Academy of Sciences] recommended that the regional councils and fisheries managers set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
In other words, ASA seems to want all fishery management plans to be as weak as the one that governs striped bass.

Thus, we have to wonder, when we hear ASA call the recent striped bass harvest reductions a “Top Recreational Fishing Advocacy Achievement,” whether they did so because ASA doesn’t really understand what a wonderful conservation tool we have in the Magnuson Act.

Or whether they did so exactly because the ASMFC plan is so weak, and elevates “socioeconomic impacts” above meeting its goals.

Either way, calling the ASMFC’s actions an “Advocacy Achievement” casts ASA’s judgment into serious doubt.

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