Thursday, February 19, 2015
SCHRODINGER'S STRIPED BASS
“The stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”
We’ve heard folks say that for years, and sometimes it’s even been true.
Quite often, however, it wasn’t. Folks uttered the line to maintain their kill and, quite often, those who managed the stock had to timely data to dispute the claim.
It became a big issue around 2010. Anglers were catching far fewer fish than they had a few years before, and were beginning to push managers to take some sort of action. However, in the Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update issued in 2011, biologists confirmed that
“the striped bass stock complex…is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”
Female spawning stock biomass remained 9% above the biomass target, and the fishing mortality rate for 2010 seemed a mere 0.23, well below the 0.34 threshold and even the 0.30 target. Biomass was just two-thirds of what it had been just six years before, and still falling, but few managers appeared concerned.
One of the few exceptions were the folks from northern New England, who saw their fish disappearing and, at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s March 2011 Striped Bass Management Board meeting, asked for harvest reductions. However, when the matter was discussed at that meeting, there was resistance from those commissioners traditionally opposed to conservation efforts.
Chief among them was Tom Fote of New Jersey, who said
“We see fluctuations in the stock, and we’re going to see that…We have taken a lot of for those fishermen who used to be concentrated on scup, summer flounder and sea bass and they had no other fish they can take home to eat, so they’ve wound up now taking striped bass, which they didn’t take before.
“The fishery is serving a purpose of basically supplying people that want to take home fish to eat; that opportunity to do that…
“We have a success story. We have triggers in there. I’m waiting to see the triggers. It would be like me coming in and saying on summer flounder or any other species, well, we think we’re anticipating that the stock is going to crash in two years and now we’re going to jump—I don’t think that’s the right message to send to the public.
“…I’m not ready to basically start an addendum that would push us through a whole bunch of work until I start seeing triggers and I have not see [sic] any of those triggers showing me the concerns that I should be having.”
The “triggers” that Fote referred to were the fishing mortality and biomass triggers contained in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass that signaled that overfishing was occurring our the stock was overfished.
He was saying loud and clear that overfishing was not occurring and that the stock was not overfished, and that he refused to take any remedial action until he did.
In his mind, there was no need to proceed with caution.
Although he was probably wrong about that, given what managers knew at the time that he spoke, his comments about the fishing mortality rate and the health of the stock were completely justified, since they mirrored statements in the stock assessment that had just been released.
But that stock assessment would be brought into question less than three years later.
In October 2013, the benchmark Striped Bass Stock Assessment for 2013 was released, quickly followed by the Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment Using Final 2012 Data. The latter document indicated that the fishery mortality target and threshold should be sharply reduced, from the Ftarget=0.30 and Fthreshold=0.34 of Amendment 6 to Ftarget=0.180 and Fthreshold=0.219.
Comparing the new fishing mortality reference points to fishing mortality in previous years showed that Fote and others had really been wrong. F had exceeded 0.219 in a few of those years.
Overfishing had been occurring.
But F=0.20 in 2012, above Ftarget but not Fthreshold, so when New England commissioners tried to expedite striped bass measures at the end of 2013, Fote again addressed the management board and said
“In my estimation, we’ve been here when the sky is falling and a whole bunch of people yammering…
“As I said, I look at these figures and I don’t see the sky falling.
“I see that we’re coming to where we have decided where a threshold will be and then we’re getting close to that line, but we’re not under that line. It is not overfished and overfishing is not taking place… [emphasis added].
The idea of precaution clearly still left him cold.
Over the next year, the management process dragged on, and ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board eventually produced Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which purported to reduce harvest by 25% and get it back down to the fishing mortality target—although it contained so many concessions and loopholes that the actual reductions were probably less.
When the Management Board met again earlier this month, a number of commissioners expressed concerns about those concessions and loopholes, and spoke out for a little more certainty in the management plan.
However, once again an intrepid commissioner from the State of New Jersey stepped forward to pooh-pooh their concerns, and announce that the stock
“is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”
Well, maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not.
The last data we have is from 2012, and is now two years old.
If we look at landings from then until now, we’ll note that in 2012, anglers landed a little more than 19,500,000 pounds of striped bass. F2012=0.20, just a little below the Fthreshold of 0.219. Since then, landings rose to more than 24,000,000 pounds in 2013, then fell, just a little, to 23,500,000 pounds last season.
However, while the recreational harvest was increasing in 2013 and 2014, the size of the stock was declining.
The 2013 Update to the benchmark assessment predicted 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…”
Since harvest actually increased in 2013 and 2014, F would also have increased, and very likely exceeded Fthreshold=0.219. And the 2013 Update tells us that
“If the current fully-recruited F increases to Fthreshold (0.219) and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the SSB reference point increases to 0.92 by 2015…”
Which means that the people who were saying that the stock
“is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring”
are probably wrong on both counts.
But since the last analyzed data, from 2012, upholds their claim, today they can say they are right.
Back in 1935, a physicist named Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment to explain facets of quantum physics, which he described by writing
“One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
“It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation…”
In the case of striped bass, the pertinent data has not been assessed since 2013, and the state of the stock is unknown.
That lets people claim, right at this moment, that the striped bass stock is both overfished and not overfished, and that overfishing is taking place while, at the same time, it isn’t.
That’s a situation just as ridiculous as the one Dr. Schrodinger proposed.
It is time for “direct observation.”
Given the current debate about “conservation equivalency” and the widespread concern that Addendum IV will not prove effective, basic prudence demands that an interim stock assessment be performed after this season, to ascertain whether the addendum is meeting its goals.
The work involved would be minimal, merely requiring that three more years of data be added to the benchmark assessment be updated.
Yet that work is very important.
Because if striped bass are overfished, and if overfishing is occurring, managers need to take action in order to protect the stock.