Thursday, February 18, 2016
WHY OPENING THE EEZ WOULD BE BAD FOR STRIPED BASS (IT'S PROBABLY NOT WHAT YOU THINK)
Empowered by the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which was largely responsible for rebuilding the collapsed striped bass stock after it collapsed in the late 1970s, the National Marine Fisheries Service adopted regulations prohibiting all striped bass fishing in federal waters.
Since then, there have been sporadic efforts to reopen the fishery in what is formally known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, or “EEZ”, that lies between 3 and 200 miles off the East Coast.
The first try, in the late 1990s, was largely spurred by fishermen in Massachusetts who wanted to fish productive rips off southern Cape Cod, which lay in federal waters. It never got real legs, and failed without reaching the rulemaking stage.
A more serious effort occurred around 2005, after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass suggested that NMFS consider reopening the federal fishery. That proposal went to formal rulemaking, with hearings held up and down the coast, before overwhelming opposition from recreational fishermen convinced the agency to take no action.
More recently, there has been a steady effort, led by the Montauk Boatmen’s and Captains’ Association, which represents the operators of for-hire vessels, to obtain a legislative solution. Representatives from New York’s 1st Congressional District have repeatedly proposed legislation that would permit anglers to fish for striped bass in the federal waters that lie between Montauk Point and Block Island, RI. The most recent example of such legislation is H.R. 3070, a very poorly drafted bill introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin.
Traditional recreational opposition to opening the EEZ to striped bass fishing often centered on the damage such legislation could do to the so-called “gamefish” laws that prohibit commercial striped bass fishing in a number of states. Should an EEZ fishery be created, the argument goes, vessels legally harvesting striped bass in the EEZ would be allowed to land such fish even in “gamefish” states, creating an opportunity for poachers who fished illegally within state waters, but claimed to have caught their striped bass in the EEZ.
That argument was pretty much put to bed in 2007, when then-President George H. W. Bush issued an executive order that prohibited commercial striped bass fishing in federal waters, but left the door open, should NMFS agree, to recreational harvest.
There has also been generalized recreational concern about the higher overall landings that would result should the EEZ be opened. Much of that concern focused on the recreational fishery off Virginia and North Carolina; opening the EEZ would allow anglers to target the large, female striped bass that spend most of the winter in federal waters off those two states before moving into Chesapeake Bay to spawn.
But what anglers have largely been unable to articulate is why it would do any more harm to catch such big fish in the EEZ off Virginia, rather than, say, when they were sucking down bunker inside state waters as they migrated along the coast.
The answer lies in how striped bass are managed.
Unlike federal fisheries managers, who are required to establish an annual catch limit for all managed species, ASMFC does not impose hard poundage quotas on the recreational sector, but only on commercial fishermen. Instead, the recreational fishery is constrained only on a “soft” cap, expressed as a fishing mortality rate. Such an approach makes it extremely difficult to regulate landings and prevent overfishing.
Under the federal management system, biologists begin by establishing an Overfishing Limit, generally based on maximum sustainable yield, which sets an absolute poundage cap on landings. The Science and Statistics Committee of the relevant regional fishery management council then revises the Overfishing Limit downward, to allow for inevitable scientific uncertainty, to arrive at the Acceptable Biological Catch.
The ABC then goes to the council itself, which often reduces it a bit more—usually by 20 or 25 percent—to account for management uncertainty (read the court decision in Guindon v. Pritzger to learn what can happen when such a reduction does not take place), to ultimately establish an Annual Catch Limit, denoted in pounds.
At that point, regulations are crafted to constrain harvest to the Annual Catch Limit; if landings exceed such Annual Catch Limit in any year, regulations are revised to prevent such overfishing from occurring; if the Overfishing Limit is breached, Accountability Measures will be imposed to avoid further damage to the stock.
A new Annual Catch Limit is usually calculated each year to respond to changes in the size of the fish population.
ASMFC works very differently. The target fishing mortality rate, and the regulations calculated to achieve it, are hard-wired into Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.
Regulations don’t automatically change to keep pace with changes in harvest levels or the size of the stock. They persist until the fishery management plan itself is changed, a process that can take years.
For example, after a 2011 stock assessment update warned that striped bass stock might become overfished in the not-too-distant future, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board decided wait until a new benchmark stock assessment was completed before taking action. That benchmark assessment ultimately revealed that the stock had been subject to overfishing for six out of the previous ten years, and that harvest reductions were needed. Even so, such reductions weren’t adopted until late 2014, after a year of rancorous debate and fully three years after the Management Board was aware of the stock’s decline.
Had the stock assessment not taken place, ASMFC may never have reduced harvest at all.
That’s the biggest problem with “soft” harvest caps. They are difficult to monitor and easy to ignore.
Part of the reason is that managers can’t really know what the fishing mortality rate is, and thus whether the target was exceeded, unless they perform a stock assessment of some sort, and that’s not done every year.
If the EEZ were opened to striped bass harvest, striped bass would be targeted on their summer feeding grounds in federal waters off Massachusetts. Charter, party and private boats would catch them in the EEZ off Montauk and Block Island. And all throughout the winter, the big female bass that stage off Virginia and North Carolina ahead of the spring spawning run would be hammered by anglers.
Landings could only increase substantially.
Around February 15, managers receive an estimate of recreational landings for the previous year but, unless ASMFC chose to update its stock assessment, it would be impossible for mangers to use that information to figure out whether the fishing mortality cap had been exceeded.
ASMFC only conducts benchmark striped bass assessments every five years, although a couple of updates are normally performed in between. And unlike harvest estimates, which are available less than two months after the close of the year, assessment updates take far longer to compile, and are normally not available until October or November. Full benchmark assessments take even longer.
Opening the EEZ to striped bass harvest would probably subject the stock to at least three years of overfishing (if the fish were overfished in Year 1, the assessment update wouldn’t be completed until the end of Year 2, and it would take the Management Board until the end of Year 3 to finalize any change to the regulations).
Of course, that assumes that ASMFC performed an assessment update in the year after the EEZ was opened. If no such update occurred, the overfishing could drag out for a couple more years.
Thus, the biggest obstacle to opening the EEZ to striped bass harvest is ASMFC’s unwieldy and unresponsive management system, which is slow to detect overfishing and even slower to end it—which, in fact, isn’t legally bound to do at all.
So long as that system is in place, it would be extremely foolish to allow striped bass fishing in federal waters, for doing so would open a Pandora’s Box full of problems that ASMFC might not choose to resolve.
That would be a bad thing, because as Pandora herself would explain, opening a box is easy.
But keeping the various evils contained is a hard thing to do.