Thursday, March 19, 2015


Last Tuesday, Rhode Island announced that it would permit its salt water anglers to retain one striped bass, at least 28 inches long, each day, regardless of whether such anglers were fishing from shore, from a private boat or from a for-hire vessel.

There was quite a bit of doubt that Rhode Island would come to that decision; the state’s for-hire fleet pushed very hard to convince regulators to make their customers exceptions to the general rule, and allow them to retain two bass per day, each at least 32 inches long.

In rejecting the for-hires’ demands, and adopting the single-fish bag, Rhode Island assured that throughout the northeast, from New York to Maine, the same bag limit will prevail.  Those states may share the same size limit, too, although Maine could instead adopt a very narrow, 24 to 26-inch slot, and require its anglers to release any striped bass above or below that size.

Over all, it was a remarkable showing of unity, made even more impressive by the fact that to our south, anglers fishing the coastal waters of Virginia and North Carolina will also be allowed to retain just one bass no less than 28 inches long.  

Maryland has made no official announcement, but is expected to go the same way.

Pennsylvania will also adopt 1 @ 28” in the Delaware River and, for most of the season, in its small section of Delaware Bay, although during the summer months a special season intended to target resident males will replace 1 @ 28” with a 2-fish bag and a 21 to 25-inch slot.

Of all the major striped bass states, only perpetually recalcitrant and hungry New Jersey will allow its anglers to kill more than one bass, including one fish between 28 and <42 inches long, and the other 43 inches or larger—and that’s before the state’s “bonus fish” program ever comes into play.  Delaware, which harvests relatively few stripers, also seems intent on letting its anglers kill a couple of bass each day, although the size limits have not yet been established.

Still, with the exception of a couple of unfortunate outliers, it’s pretty clear that fisheries managers in most of the states have rallied around a one-fish bag and 28-inch minimum size.  In doing so, member states of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have come nearly full circle, and acknowledged that regulations work best when they’re adopted by all.

It was that concept that gave ASMFC its original legitimacy as a true fisheries management body, rather than merely a research and debating society.  For back when the striped bass stock crashed forty or so years ago, there was no unity between the states at all.  ASMFC had adopted its first striped bass management plan, and had some ideas about what to do next, but the states competed and bickered among themselves, and not too much got done.

That didn’t change until 1984, when Congress intervened by passing the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act.  That law gave ASMFC the ability to enforce the terms of its striped bass management plan; any state that ASMFC determined was out of compliance with the plan's provisions could be referred to the United States Commerce Department.  

Commerce, in turn, was authorized to confirm ASMFC’s finding of non-compliance and, as a result, shut down the entire striped bass fishery in the waters of the offending state until such state brought its own regulations in line with the plan.

That ability to shut down a state’s entire fishery was the hammer that ASMFC needed to keep state regulators in line, and prevent them from taking any actions that would hurt other states and the striped bass’ recovery.  The approach proved so successful that, in 1993, Congress passed the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which extended ASMFC’s ability to close state fisheries to all of the species that it managed.

But then, a funny thing happened.

ASMFC began to abandon the very mechanism that made its striped bass recovery efforts effective.  Instead, it relied more and more on the concept of “conservation equivalency,” which allowed states to deviate from the provisions of a management plan, so long as the regulations adopted by such state were deemed to yield the same conservation benefit as did the Commission’s plan.

The most extreme example of such approach occurred in the summer flounder fishery, where each state was assigned its own share of the harvest and required to adopt regulations that governed only that state’s fishery.  Regulations varied widely between neighboring states, with boats fishing a few hundred feet apart, but on different sides of an interstate boundary, governed by wildly different rules.  

Anglers grew discontent, fisheries managers grew frustrated and, given how often states overfished their allocations, the effort probably didn’t do the summer flounder an awful lot of good, either.

The situation staggered along for more than a decade. 

However, in other fisheries, managers were beginning to see the advantages of a unified management plan.

Scup were the vehicle for the first breakthrough.

Although scup are caught along much of the southern New England and mid-Atlantic coast, in most years well over 90 percent of the recreational harvest is landed by just four states—New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  The percentage of the catch landed by those states as a group remaine pretty constant from year to year, although each state’s contribution to the overall landings can change quite a bit. 

As a result, under the “conservation equivalency” approach, states were constantly changing their regulations in response to the previous year’s landings; however, because they were constantly looking backwards, at what the previous years landings were, and not into the future, at what landings were likely to be, the effort wasn’t very successful.     
A little over ten years ago, the issue came to a head.

Estimates of angling harvest said that Connecticut had grossly overfished its allocation; at the same time, New York had significantly underfished its share of scup.  Under the conservation equivalency approach, Connecticut faced severe harvest restrictions, while New York would be able to significantly liberalize its rules.  The only problem was that when the next season came, it was as likely as not that the situation would reverse, and New York would be under the gun to reduce its scup landings.

Such constant changes caused equally constant aggravation for anyone involved in the fishery.

So instead of going forward in the usual way, the states broke out of the mold, with New York offering to share its fish with Connecticut.  That way, no one needed to make any changes in its rules, and some stability could be restored to the fishery.  That effort evolved a bit more, and eventually the four major scup states agreed to manage their fish as a unit, with the same size limits, bag limits and season length.

It worked out very well.  The wild annual swings in each state’s regulations disappeared as overages in one state were nullified by underages in another.  Bag limits grew and size limits shrunk for everyone as years of good management rebuilt the stock to some of the highest levels of abundance that anyone can recall.

In 2014, after years of disjointed conservation equivalency efforts, some level of rationality returned to summer flounder management as well, as ASMFC organized the states into “regions.”  Each state in a region was required to have the same size limit, bag limit and season length as all of the others.  Here in New York, the effort was wonderfully successful.

New York was grouped in a region with Connecticut and New Jersey, which allowed New York to reduce its size limit and increase its bag, at the expense of a somewhat shortened season.  New Jersey anglers didn’t like the idea, as they had to endure greater restrictions.  Ironicallly, the arrangement ended up helping New Jersey most, after that state—even with its more restrictive regulations—ended up exceeding what would have been its single-state allocation, while New York with its less restrictive rules underfished by a substantial amount (as did Connecticut).

In the end, as with scup, overages and underages cancelled themselves out, and we’re all going to have the same summer flounder regulations for two years in a row, a modest sign of stability that we last experienced over a decade ago.

Hanging together really does work.

Thus, it’s slightly amusing to see states in other regions, which are considering adopting a state-driven, ASMFC-like model for the first time, ignoring ASMFC’s well-publicized mistakes and setting out to make the very same mistakes for themselves.

The best example of that recently surfaced In the Gulf of Mexico, where the states are hoping to band together in something that’s being called the “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority,” which would take over responsibility for red snapper management from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The folks proposing such an “Authority” are bright enough to realize that the states won’t always get along, and that one state may well take action that will be detrimental to the interests of the other states’ anglers.  Thus, they tried to create a federal backstop that could intercede in interstate problems, providing that

“The [Authority] could request additional accountability actions through the Secretary of Commerce if a Gulf state or a group of Gulf states adopted management measures that or regulations significantly inconsistent from the red snapper management framework identified in the Plan when such inconsistent measures could negatively impact the interests of other Gulf states with regard to red snapper management
“The procedures established as part of the Striped Bass Act [sic] Section 5153—Monitoring of Implementation and Enforcement by Coastal States would serve as a model for developing procedures for action through the Secretary of Commerce specific to the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico…”
The only problem was that the same folks decided that

"Federal action to provide accountability and ensure consistency would be limited to the federal waters adjacent to the state(s} that adopted inconsistent management measures or actions.  Under no circumstances would federal authority or action supersede that of an individual state within state waters.”
And thus they prove that they missed the whole point.

The only reason that ASMFC’s striped bass recovery efforts worked was because ASMFC could shut down a non-compliant state’s entire fishery by invoking federal sanctions.  If states had been allowed to manage striped bass as they chose within state waters, the entire process would have failed.

Granted, striped bass are inshore gamefish, and a much larger proportion of red snapper landings are harvested offshore.  Yet even in that fishery, landings from state waters are creating a significant problem and leading to much of the current disruption of the management process.  Allowing the states to do as they please in their own waters, immune from the federal hammer, is purest folly.

Without a federal backstop to enforce compliance with a management plan, do we really believe that Texas will give up its 365-day season, 4-fish bag and 15-inch minimum size, if fisheries managers in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi think that they should in order to help out the stock?

Up here in the north, we know how it works in the real world.  We have to deal with New Jersey…

So yes, striped bass anglers throughout the northeast, and along the rest of the striper coast, should be pleased that most of our fisheries managers have decided that unity does, in fact, produce strength.  

And we can hopefully rest assured that if New Jersey’s excesses don’t achieve the desired reduction, the rest of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board can require that state to do better, and then seek federal intervention in every New Jersey creek, bay and river if they refuse.

A long time ago, Benjamin Franklin reputedly said

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
But in the arena of fisheries management, that’s not really true.

Sometimes, as in the case of New York’s winter flounder, there’s a compelling biological reason to go it alone.  But that’s an exceptional situation.  Almost all of the time, the states have a very clear choice.

They can hang together, and provide better fishing for all.

Or they can each try to maneuver to best suit themselves, in which case some will surely hang separately, while others gleefully pull on the other end of the rope.

It’s a lesson that Atlantic coast anglers learned through experience, and that’s one experience that anglers elsewhere should not try to repeat.

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