Sunday, February 7, 2016
STRIPED BASS: LOOKING FORWARD
Nothing bad happened at the February 2016 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board.
The previous November, the State of Maryland had tried to convince the Management Board to reopen the debate that ended with the adoption of Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan. Maryland was seeking more fish for its commercial and for-hire fisheries in Chesapeake Bay, although its effort was soon broadened by representatives of states in the upper mid-Atlantic, who sought to increase the coastwide kill.
However, action on that motion was postponed after the Management Board agreed to schedule an update to the benchmark stock assessment, which would evaluate the health of the stock at the close of 2015. Satisfied with that action, in February Maryland again agreed that a vote on its motion be postponed, this time indefinitely.
That removed the immediate threat to the regulations adopted pursuant to Addendum IV. The question is, where do we go from here?
The 2016 assessment update will be a good thing. More information can only improve management of the striped bass stock; a year ago, I argued that just such an update should be performed, to determine whether the new regulations were sufficient to reduce fishing mortality to the target level.
The updated assessment will probably be released to the Management Board in November; in the meantime, folks both for and against a harvest increase will be speculating about what it will say.
Maryland is betting that it will show a healthy stock, bolstered by a strong 2011 year class that has just entered the fishery with a smaller, but still above-average, 2015 year class waiting in the wings, and justify an increase in harvest.
Conservation-minded anglers will point to the Atlantic Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update 2015, which indicated that fishing mortality in 2014 was 0.205, about halfway between the target and the fishing mortality threshold. They’ll note the good weather that stretched all the way through December 2015, and allowed anglers to kill lots of big bass throughout the autumn migration, and wonder whether 1 fish at 28 inches was enough to significantly reduce last year’s kill.
Anecdotal information can be found to support either scenario, and some will also support the folks who predict that we’re right on target now. On the other hand, the 2015 update included an almost-even chance that the stock would become overfished at some point last season, so the size of the female spawning stock biomass will be on everyone’s mind.
In the end, though, the biggest question is not what the update will say, but what the Management Board will do with such information.
After a 2011 update indicated that the stock was declining, and that overfishing might be on the horizon, the Board took no action, arguing that despite its decline, the stock was still neither overfished nor subject to overfishing. Instead, it hold off until a new stock assessment, scheduled to begin in 2012, was completed.
Based on past performance, it’s pretty likely that the Management Board will take no action even if the 2016 update shows that fishing mortality remains well over target and that spawning stock biomass has not increased by any significant amount, and again would wait for the results of a new benchmark stock assessment scheduled for 2017.
So-called “management triggers” contained in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass would supposedly compel action in the unlikely event that fishing mortality exceeded the overfishing threshold or the less-unlikely event that declining biomass took the stock into “overfished” territory by the end of 2015. However, the odds are still pretty good that the Management Board, always reluctant to restrict landings, would choose to wait until the benchmark assessment is completed before taking action.
On the other hand, if the 2016 update shows a significant increase in female spawning stock biomass, or if it shows that fishing mortality in 2015 fell well below target, some members of the Management Board will undoubtedly echo the words of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission’s Robert O’Reilly, who said last November that
“Management certainly can take place without a benchmark”
At this point, it’s anyone’s guess what would happen then.
If the Management Board decided to increase the harvest ahead of the benchmark stock assessment, and followed its usual procedures, it would have to begin an addendum process.
If such process were initiated in November 2016, we could see a draft Addendum V released for public comment in February 2017, public hearings in March and April, and a final version of the addendum adopted no earlier than May 2017.
If such an addendum were approved, states would then have to go through their typical rulemaking process to put new regulations into effect.
And If all of that happened, the states would probably wait until 2018 to impose any new regulations, to avoid the confusion that is inevitably caused by in-season changes.
Any new regulations adopted pursuant to the upcoming benchmark assessment probably wouldn't be put in place until 2020, so the folks seeking a bigger kill will certainly fight to make it happen sooner if they get the chance.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine that any data contained in the 2016 update will have a major impact upon the resource.
Target fishing mortality will remain 0.180, and the overfishing threshold will still be 0.219. Any allowable increase or decrease in harvest will be wholly dependent upon the size of the spawning stock biomass.
Stock size would have to increase substantially to justify any significant change in the Addendum IV regulations—except, perhaps, in Chesapeake Bay, where a strong 2011 year class and an above-average spawn in 2015 might be used in an attempt to justify a higher kill of immature bass. Now that the Chesapeake Bay fishery is fully integrated into that coastwide management system, and not awarded its own unique set of reference points, the likelihood of that occurring has substantially diminished.
Still, striped bass anglers are advised to remain aware of what’s going on in the fishery, and what’s going on at ASMFC. For regardless of the state of the stock, there will always be folks who want to push things a little too far, and take more fish than is reasonably prudent.
The only curb on such folks’ excesses is an informed angling public that is willing to raise the alarm and put up a fight when things threaten to get out of hand.