Sunday, February 21, 2016
2015 STRIPED BASS HARVEST: HOW DID WE DO?
When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan in October 2014, it required all states to adopt regulations that would reduce harvest, when compared to 2013 landings, by 25% on the coast and by 20.5% in Chesapeake Bay.
Although the action was widely supported by recreational striped bass fishermen, who on the whole supported even deeper harvest reductions, it was not popular with elements of the commercial and for-hire fisheries. There were also pockets of anglers, most notably in New Jersey, Delaware and in Chesapeake Bay, who opposed the conservation effort.
Opponents felt that the 25% reduction was too deep a cut to be put in place all at once and believed that if it was to be adopted at all, it should be phased in over time. Supporters feared that the 25% reduction only had a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality to the target level, and wanted to see an even deeper cut that had a better chance of success.
Preliminary harvest estimates for 2015 have now been released, so it’s natural to ask, “How did we do?”
The answer is that, on the whole, we did very well, although some states failed to do their part and forced others to bear the brunt of striped bass conservation while they, always complaining, reaped the greater rewards.
The standard for success, as I mentioned before, was to reduce striped bass landings by 25%, compared to what they were in 2013. As it turned out, anglers actually overshot their mark . The 15,318,614 pounds of striped bass that they landed last year represents a 42% reduction from their 2013 kill.
Of course, the stock has continued to shrink since 2013, while the fishing mortality rate continued to hover around 0.20, just about halfway between the target and the overfishing threshold. Thus, it’s good to know that last year’s landings also represent a 36% reduction from those of 2014.
Every coastal state, except for one, contributed more than its share to the conservation effort, with reductions that ranged from 90%, up in bass-starved New Hampshire, to 38% in Massachusetts.
The only coastal state that failed to reduce harvest at all was, predictably, New Jersey, which again managed to manipulate the “conservation equivalency” concept to escape all responsibility for conserving the stock. The 4,913,348 pounds if striped bass that it landed in 2015 represents a mere 1% reduction from its 2013 harvest; compared to 2014 landings, New Jersey’s 2015 kill was actually 19% higher.
Given that result, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board would be well-advised to meet by conference call and revoke its approval of New Jersey’s “conservation equivalent” regulations, and compel the state’s anglers to accept the coastwide standard of one bass at 28 inches or more. As a practical matter, that’s unlikely to happen, and we’re thus likely to see other states attempt to game the system with regulations that appear to be “equivalent” on paper but fail in the real world.
Two more non-compliant states pop up once we leave the coast and enter Chesapeake Bay. Even though the Striped Bass Management Board eased the burden of both Maryland and Virginia (along with Washington, D.C. and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission), allowing those jurisdictions to cut Chesapeake Bay landings by just 20.5%, instead of the full 25%, they failed to meet even that lowered standard.
Virginia only managed an 8% reduction, less than half of what was required, while Maryland blew through its cap, with 2015 landings fully 133% of what they were in 2013. All of that excess harvest took place in Chesapeake Bay, with Maryland anglers hammering the very 2011 year class that we are depending upon to rebuild the stock.
On the coast, both states did well, with Maryland reducing coastal landings by 94% and Virginia accounting for so few ocean fish that they didn’t even show up in the numbers. However, that modest good was more than set off by Virginia’s mere 3% cut in Chesapeake landings, and Maryland increasing its kill of bay fish by a whopping 45%, to 2,924,425 pounds.
Of course, there is irony here, for it was the two states which failed most dismally in meeting their conservation obligations—Maryland and New Jersey—that, at the November 2015 Striped Bass Management Board meeting, fought the hardest to kill more striped bass.
The hard numbers cast new light on the testimony of Jay A. Jacobs, a member of Maryland’s House of Delegates, who argued for increased harvest in Chesapeake Bay, saying
“Specifically in Maryland, with the implementation of the 20.5 percent reduction and also the slot size that was implemented for the trophy season and the increase from 18 to 20 inches in the fishery, we’ve had huge economic impacts in those other industries, in the charterboat industry and the recreational side of those.”
Given that Maryland did not, as things turned out, take a 20.5% reduction in recreational landings at all, but actually enjoyed a 45% increase in Chesapeake Bay landings, his claim that the state’s recreational fishing industry was hurt by a “reduction” that never really occurred was clearly false—so egregiously false that Mr. Jacobs should apologize to the Management Board for his blatant lack of veracity.
Bill Langley, a member of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and President of the Maryland Charterboat Association, told a similar tale of fabricated woe, complaining that
“This past year’s reductions have caused a negative economic impact on the bay’s user groups, especially the charter fleet.”
Langley was a little more astute than Jacobs, though. Despite his complaints and his plea to kill more striped bass, he might have suspected that the facts didn’t support his arguments, as he qualified his comments by saying
“I know that MRIP data will—I don’t know what MRIP data will show. However, I can assure you that most of the charter fleet experienced a greater reduction than 25 percent. Many captains are experiencing greater than 50 percent reductions through Wave 4. In Wave 5, we may see some relief possibly…”
Langley is probably happy that he hedged his bets, since the Maryland charter boats that fished Chesapeake Bay in 2015 landed an estimated 536,541 pounds of striped bass, about a 5.5% increase over 2013’s 508,790 pounds.
He was wrong about landings through Wave 4, too; his claimed 25% to 50% decrease in harvest never happened. Instead, Maryland charterboat harvest through Wave 4 was actually 14% higher than it was in 2013, 468,720 pounds versus just 410,068 pounds in 2013.
So yes, fishermen’s tales—and captains’ tales, and legislators’ tales—must all be taken with very large grains of salt…
But the good news is Addendum IV seems to be working better than many anglers, including myself, expected.
It appears to have reduced landings by more than the needed 25%, which can only help the striped bass to rebuild. Now that we have gotten this far, the trick will be to stay the course, and to bring states such as New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia into line with the rest of the East Coast jurisdictions.
That won’t be easy to do, because they’ve already tried to increase the kill.
But it would be a shame to step backward now, when we’re finally making some progress.