Sunday, May 3, 2015


I recently spent a couple of days down in Washington, D.C., where I spoke to legislative staff, and to a few reporters, about the need to preserve the conservation and management provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which are currently being threatened by Alaska Representative Don Young’s H.R. 1335, the so-called “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act”.

As I spoke with various members of the House and Senate staff, one theme came up a number of times, the notion that, at least for some species, the current scientifically rigorous system of annual catch limits and rebuilding overfished stocks should be replaced with a system built around “soft” catch targets and relaxed rebuilding deadlines, similar to that employed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The interesting thing about such views were that they were expressed exclusively by the staff of representatives and senators from states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.  There was quite a bit of talk about red snapper being “managed like striped bass”—one representative, Louisiana Republican Garret Graves, has already attempted to introduce legislation that would put such a management approach in place.

After my two days of wandering the halls of the capitol were done, it became pretty clear that some people down in the Gulf, where Atlantic striped bass don’t swim and ASMFC doesn’t manage the fisheries, are pretty impressed with ASMFC’s management of the striped bass.  

It also became pretty clear that when you talked to folks from the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, who hear about striped bass from their constituents on a regular basis, no one was spouting any foolishness about managing federal fisheries the way ASMFC manages stripers.

I suppose that ASMFC’s striped bass management program is a lot like a grainy photograph or a badly done painting.  It looks fine if you stand far enough away, but once you start getting close, it starts looking bad; the flaws just can’t be ignored.

It also doesn’t help that a lot of the Gulf Coast legislators are being sold a bill of goods by representatives of the angling industry and “anglers’ rights” groups who are quick to talk about how the stock recovered between 1984 and 1995, but tend to leave out the part about abundance declining steadily from 2003 right through today.

And they never veer off the topic of striped bass to point out that the same “soft target” management system used by ASMFC hasn’t restored a single stock managed solely by the Commission since 1995, although weakfish, tautog, American shad, alewives, American eel, blueback herring and southern New England lobster have declined pretty badly since then, and northern shrimp have completely collapsed.

But if you live in Louisiana or Texas, or anywhere else along the Gulf, you probably don’t see all of the problems, and the folks who are trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens are doing their best to keep your vision firmly focused at least twenty years in the past.

Anyone interested in finding out how striped bass management has worked out today would do well to start with the most recent, peer-reviewed benchmark stock assessment, along with its 2013 update, which states

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015.  After 2016, the probability is expected to decline slightly.  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 reaches 0.93 by 2015 and declines thereafter.  If the fully-recruited F decreases to the current Ftarget (0.180) and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the SSB reference point reaches 0.77 by 2015 and declines thereafter…”
In other words, despite the striped bass stock having been declared rebuilt in 1995, and biomass peaking in 2003, even under the most optimistic scenarios, that stock is likely—between a 77% and 93% chance—to fall to overfished levels again this year.

People saw the problem coming for a number of years.  ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee began work on an amendment to the management plan that would reduce fishing mortality, and in November 2011 was advised by a member of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee that

“Under the current [fishing mortality] of 0.23 the female spawning stock biomass will fall below the threshold by 2017…”
Some members of the Management Board tried to cut off the problem.  Douglas Grout, a fishery manager for the State of New Hampshire, clearly stated that

“That is the line in the sand.  It’s not going below the target, its going below our established threshold here.  Even under average recruitment, which includes the good years, we’re going to be right at that threshold by that time.  The question to me here is do we want to get out ahead of this and prevent this from occurring and help us achieve our vision of healthy and sustainable stocks by 2015 or do we want to wait and react?”
As has been typical of ASMFC for the past decade or two, a majority opted for “wait and react” and action was deferred until after the benchmark assessment was done.

Yet even then, when the peer-reviewed benchmark assessment—the closest thing to a “gold standard” in fisheries management—advised that fishing mortality should be reduced, and that overfishing was likely by 2015, there were a number of Management Board members who wanted to do nothing.

“We have been looking at some figures for a period of time and then decided we’re going to do a drastic cut.  Two years later they’re finding out that we didn’t need the drastic cuts and had to change the regulations in New Jersey again…
“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…”
In other words, Fote was opposed to any action that would reduce harvest and perhaps prevent the stock from becoming overfished.  Instead, he would wait until the crisis occurred, and then try to react and correct things, rather than trying to avert the crisis in the first place.

Under Magnuson-Stevens, that can’t occur.  The law requires that

“The Secretary shall report annually to the Congress and the Councils on the status of fisheries within each Council’s geographical area of authority and identify those fisheries that are overfished or are approaching a condition of being overfished.  For those fisheries managed under a fishery management plan or international agreement, the status shall be determined using the criteria for overfishing specified in such plan or agreement.  A fishery shall be classified as approaching a condition of being overfished if, based on trends in fishing effort, fishery resource size, and other appropriate factors, the Secretary estimates that the fishery will become overfished within two years.  [emphasis added]”
Federal law also requires that

“Within one year after [the Secretary determines that a fishery is approaching a condition of being overfished], the appropriate Council…shall prepare a fishery management plan, plan amendment, or proposed regulations for the fishery…to prevent overfishing from occurring in the fishery…”
Approaches such as Fote’s, which would take no action until overfishing actually occurs, are not allowed under federal law.

But then, many things that are prohibited—or required—by the conservation and management provisions of Magnuson-Stevens are not binding on the Striped Bass Management Board, or any other ASMFC management panel.

For example, Magnuson-Stevens requires that the best available science be used in making fishery management decisions, and at the federal level, a peer-reviewed stock assessment would surely qualify.  Yet at the October 2014 Striped Bass Management Board meeting, when the regulations would be set for 2015 and succeeding years, there was actually opposition to accepting the assessment’s conclusions.  John Clark, a proxy for Delaware’s marine fisheries director, discounted the conclusions of the peer-reviewed assessment, saying

“I just think the current peer-reviewed benchmark assessment is an excellent model, but I think, as has been pointed out, the reference points are extremely conservative…I just look at the new reference points in regards to the spawning and stock biomass as tracked over the past few years, and it looks to me that we’re going to have to keep the stock at almost an unsustainably high level.
“…I just don’t see the urgent need for us to adopt such a conservative set of reference points at this time.”
It probably should be noted that Delaware, along with neighboring New Jersey, were the only two states to later adopt “conservation-equivalent” regulations that allowed their anglers to kill two fish, as opposed to the one-fish bag limit adopted everywhere else…

Kyle Schick, legislative proxy from Virginia, took a similar course, arguing

“…I don’t see the high urgency to do such a drastic measure at this time…
“We don’t have to stop it in one year; we don’t have to do such a drastic thing over three years.  We do need to do something, but I don’t think that the economic impact that this is going to catch [sic]—and recreational fishermen, they don’t want to go to one fish.  They don’t want to have this huge catch reduction.  They may talk about it now, but we’ll see what happens.  Right now we have marinas have been going out of business at the highest rate in history; the same thing with tackle shops…”
And thus we have the classic argument for “flexibility,” that there is no hurry to end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks; yes, they present a problem, but not so much of a problem that managers should elevate healthy fisheries in the future above healthy profits right now…

It’s exactly the sort of argument, justifying continued over-exploitation of already depleted and often collapsed fisheries two decades ago, that led to the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996.  Its prevalence even today is why federal fisheries law requires that overfishing be promptly halted and overfished stocks promptly rebuilt.

In the case of striped bass, that didn’t exactly happen.  

Yes, the recommendations of the benchmark assessment were ultimately accepted, and new, lower fisheries mortality reference points put in place.  But while Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass requires fishing mortality to be lowered to target levels within one year once the management trigger is tripped, it didn’t work out that way last October.

ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee had determined that if overall striped bass harvest was reduced by 25%, there would be a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality to the target level by the end of 2015.  

Such 50% chance of success is the bare minimum for a federal fishery management plan; the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council vs. Daley made that perfectly clear.

However, ASMFC was under no such legal stricture, so some members of the Management Board, led primarily by representatives from Chesapeake Bay, decided to completely ignore the language of the management plan, and moved to stretch out the recovery for three full years.  When  that failed, another motion was made to extend the time from one year to two.  When that failed as well, the Management Board eventually approved a motion that said

“Move that prior to the start of the 2015 fishing season, all jurisdictions implement rules to achieve the new fishing mortality target by implementing a 25 percent harvest reduction in the coastal fisheries and a 20.5 percent reduction in the Chesapeake Bay fisheries.”
Of course, because the rules were eased for Chesapeake Bay, the final Board action didn't have a 50% chance of complying with the management plan’s requirement that harvest be reduced to target within just one year.  When a Technical Committee representative was asked about that, he said

“We didn’t do the math, but I guess a weighted average, it would be some time less than two years, technically, within a year and a half.  It would be less than two years for sure.”
And the likelihood of achieving the mandated reduction within the required one year became even lower after the Management Board decided to reduce the commercial striped bass quota, rather than actual harvest, by 25%, something later calculated to provide a real-world reduction in the 25% range.

Under Magnuson-Stevens, such approach would have been dead on arrival, but when you “manage fish like striped bass,” saying “didn’t do the math” and “I guess” meets the standards just fine.  As does just ignoring the management plan…

So yes, I suppose that the “flexibility” to avoid science-based catch limits and rebuilding mandates might look pretty good from some distance away.

But I live and fish on the striper coast.  I have seen a fish once restored to abundance from the depths of collapse become overfished yet again.

From that close perspective, managing any species “like striped bass” doesn’t look good at all.

1 comment:

  1. I agree 100% with your statement that striped bass management under ASFMC is not the model that should be used to manage any federal fishery. The bottom line in the Gulf of Mexico is that the cca wants all the fish. It's really that simple and the argument that started in the 1800s will never be stopped. Four words tell the story, WHO GETS THE FISH.