Sunday, March 6, 2016
REVISITING ANGLERS' 2015 STRIPED BASS HARVEST
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog entitled “2015 Striped Bass Harvest: How Did We Do?”. It was intended to be a rough-and-ready look at the preliminary 2015 recreational landings data, and made a first guess as to whether the regulations put in place last season were effective in reducing our landings by 25%.
The estimates were based on the poundage of fish caught, as that is how both the recent benchmark assessment and Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan addressed recreational landings. The blog compared all 2015 landings to those of 2013.
Based on those calculations, the bass made out pretty well.
The overall reduction in poundage landed was about 42%, comfortably below the 25% reduction that, biologists estimated, would reduce fishing mortality to the target level.
However, the reductions were very uneven, with some coastal states experiencing very deep cuts in landings and some achieving no material reductions at all. In Chesapeake Bay, the states not only failed to achieve their modest 20.5% reduction, they actually increased their kill.
It turns out, though, that ASMFC looks at things a little differently.
Last week, I received an e-mail from Max Appelman, who is ASMFC’s Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for Atlantic Striped Bass. He had read my blog, and pointed out that the way I calculated the harvest reductions wasn’t the way that ASMFC will do so when it prepares the 2016 update to the stock assessment. He noted
“Addendum IV required states to reduce fishing mortality to a level at or below the new target (0.18). To achieve this, coastal fisheries implemented a 25% harvest reduction, and Chesapeake Bay fisheries implemented a 20.5% harvest reduction. For the commercial sectors, harvest reductions were made in terms of pounds of fish; Amendment 6 quota allocations were reduced by 25% for coastal states, and Chesapeake Bay quotas were reduced by 20.5%. For the recreational sectors, harvest reductions were made in terms of number of fish, not pounds. To further complicate matters, since Chesapeake Bay fisheries had taken a 14% reduction in 2013, Addendum IV required its reduction be applied to 2012 levels. Again, for the Bay's commercial fisheries, this was a 20.5% reduction from the 2012 quota (pounds), and for the Bay's recreational fisheries the reduction was applied to 2012 removals (number of fish). Therefore, an accurate evaluation of the performance of the 2015 state regulations would require a separate evaluation of each sector (i.e., coastal commercial, coastal recreational, Chesapeake Bay commercial, and Chesapeake Bay recreational) according to their respective base periods and metrics. In June, following the release of final harvest estimates, the Striped Bass Plan Review Team will evaluate all 2015 state measures to verify whether or not they meet the requirements of Addendum IV.”
So clearly, the simple calculation that I did missed a few points, and I couldn’t let that slide by without letting readers know and correcting my original post. Using ASMFC’s approach to the calculation, I also reran the numbers to see whether anglers achieved the required reductions of 25% on the coast and 20.5% in Chesapeake Bay (the National Marine Fisheries Service has not yet published the commercial landings figures on its website, so I can’t include those, although the fact that Addendum IV calculated the reduction based on the full quota, rather than on actual landings, suggests that, in the real world, commercial landings reductions may be less than the full 25%/20.5%).
Obviously, I’m not trying to provide a statistically rigorous estimate of landings—it’s going to take a team of fishery professionals something like six months to do that—but just provide a ballpark notion of whether the 25%/20.5% reductions were achieved for the states’ recreational fisheries’, using more-or-less the same approach that ASMFC would use to decide whether your state exceeded its black sea bass or fluke quotas last year numbers.
When I calculated striped bass removals in numbers of fish and using 2012 rather than 2013 for the base year in Chesapeake Bay, the figures change a little bit, but all of the trends from the original calculations remain.
The striped bass still made out pretty well—even better than when poundage is used to measure state landings. New Jersey, with its adoption of conservation equivalency, still experienced a reduction that was proportionately less, by a substantial amount, than that borne by the rest of the coast, and the Chesapeake Bay’s performance was even worse than previously calculated.
The overall reduction in coastal landings, when measured in numbers of fish, was 57%, versus a 42% reduction in poundage. All of the states, other than New Jersey, achieved at least a 25% reduction; New Hampshire still experienced the biggest landings cut, at 92%, while of all the states that met their obligations under Addendum IV, Massachusetts’ 46% reduction remained the smallest.
New Jersey, with a 22% reduction in landings, came much closer to meeting Addendum IV’s mandate than it did when landings were measured in pounds, but still fell short.
On the coast, reductions appear larger when expressed in number of fish rather than pounds, probably because of recent poor spawning success and the result lack of small fish available to anglers.
There is an 8-year gap between the big 2003 year class, members of which now average at least 25 pounds, and the very good 2011 year class, which has yet to recruit into the fishery. As a result, in most states, the weight of the average fish caught on the coast in 2015 was from 2 to 5 pounds larger than it was in 2013.
Basically, we’re chasing fewer, but bigger, striped bass.
The Chesapeake Bay states failed miserably in their efforts to achieve a 20.5% reduction in recreational harvest, even when 2015 landings are measured in numbers of fish and compared to those of 2012, rather than measured in pounds and compared to 2013, as I had done before.
Viewed in that, more proper light, Chesapeake Bay anglers enjoyed a 46% increase in striped bass landings, rather than taking the 20.5% reduction mandated by Addendum IV. Thus, all of the cries of distress coming from members of the Bay’s recreational fishing industry, who claim that they were hurt by harvest reductions, are clearly gross fabrications.
Both the unexpectedly low landings levels on the coast and the inexcusably high landing levels in Chesapeake Bay seem to be driven by angler effort, which in turn is driven by a number of factors, including weather, the availability of striped bass and, for some anglers, more restrictive regulations. On the coast, three states with traditionally large striped bass harvests, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, saw trips primarily targeting striped bass drop by 28%, 7% and 54%, respectively.
On the other hand, in Chesapeake Bay, where the abundant 2011 year class is now vulnerable to angling, effort increased 59% in Maryland and 38% in Virginia, when compared to 2012 figures. Such sharp increases make it clear that angling-related businesses in the region did not suffer from effort reductions, either.
So what does all of this mean?
With respect just to striped bass, it means that at least on my part, the time for back-of-the-envelope calculations is over. It appears that the coastal recreational fishery did its job, and more than met Addendum IV mandates to reduce landings. Whether that successful effort, once coupled with very large recreational overages in Chesapeake Bay and whatever the commercial harvest turns out to be, will be enough to constrain harvest at or below F=0.18 won’t be known until autumn, when ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee releases its 2016 update to the stock assessment.
More broadly, the figures again highlight recurring problems at ASMFC, that affect all managed species.
Management boards continue to be far too willing to permit the use of “conservation equivalency”; while it is a valuable tool to address inequities caused by structural aspects of a particular state’s fishery, it is harmful as it is most often used--to allow states such as New Jersey to game the management system and craft regulations that allow them to avoid some of the burdens of management and shift them onto their neighbors.
Worse, there continues to be no accountability imposed on states that fail to meet their obligations under a fishery management plan, whether that occurs as a result of conservation equivalency or otherwise.
In the case of striped bass, the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions wheedled a reduction in their mandated harvest cut, from the original 25% to just 20.5%, claiming that they had already made a reduction in 2013, and would be unreasonably burdened if forced to accept another 25% cut in 2015.
However, in the real world, those jurisdictions ultimately experienced no harvest reduction at all, and instead increased their recreational landings by nearly 50%.
Even so, they will neither have to repay that overage with reduced landings in future years, nor amend their 2016 regulations to assure that the overage does not recur this season.
As striped bass fishermen, we can only hope that Addendum IV will successfully constrain striped bass harvest to or below target levels, and that above-average year classes in 2011 and 2015—and hopefully in the near future—will eventually allow the stock to rebuild to the biomass target as well.
However, we have to view that hope against the hard fact that ASMFC has not managed to rebuild a single stock in the past 20 years, largely because management boards have failed to make the restoration and maintenance of healthy fish stocks their paramount priority; instead, as occurred with striped bass, they continue to get bogged down and led astray by parochial concerns and short-term economic considerations.
Until that changes, if it ever does, the long-term fate of striped bass, and all ASMFC-managed stocks, will always remain in doubt.