Thursday, August 4, 2016


Fisheries management can be a complicated and sometimes confusing business.  Here on the East Coast, one of the more complicated and often confusing concepts is that of “conservation equivalency,” as practiced by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

It comes into play after ASMFC has adopted a set of management measures as part of a fishery management plan.  In order to comply with such plan, all states must either adopt the precise measures proposed by ASMFC, or come up with alternate measures that have the same conservation effect—have “conservation equivalency”—pass muster with the relevant Technical Committee and are approved by the appropriate species Management Board.

Conservation equivalency is deeply enshrined in the governing documents of ASMFC.  The Standards and Procedures for Interstate Fishery Management Plans, included in the Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter, states that

“If the [Fishery Management Plan so provides, procedures under which the states my implement and enforce alternate management measures that achieve conservation equivalency”
must be included in such plan.

The same Charter defines “conservation equivalency” as

“Actions take by a state which differ from the specific requirements of the [Fishery Management Plan], but which achieve the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management.  For example, various combinations of size limits, gear restrictions, and season length can be demonstrated to achieve the same targeted level of fishing mortality.  The appropriate Management Board/Section will determine conservation equivalency.”
ASMFC has also developed a “Policy and Technical Guidance Document” to help apply the conservation equivalency concept in practice.  Such document provides, in part, that

“During the development of a management document, the Plan Development Team (PDT) has the responsibility to recommend if conservation equivalency should be permitted for that species…The PDT should consider stock status, data availability, range of the species, socio-economic information, and the potential for more conservative management when stocks are overfished or overfishing is occurring when making a recommendation on conservation equivalency.  [emphasis added]
And thus the can of worms is opened…

I need to say at the start that, under some circumstances, conservation equivalency can be a very good thing.  

The best example of that may be seen in the recreational summer flounder fishery, where fish are both larger and more abundant toward the northern end of their range, and a single, coastwide size limit would work a real and unnecessary hardship on states in the southern mid-Atlantic.

Given the solid biological basis for differing state regulations, it’s hard to question the wisdom of invoking conservation equivalency.

Conservation equivalency also seems to have worked with scup.  More than 90% of the harvest is taken by New York, Connecticut, Rhode island and Massachusetts, and a large portion of that comes from waters between Long Island’s East End and the “elbow” of Cape Cod, where boats from multiple states often anchor up within sinker-throwing distance of one another.  

Under such conditions, it makes sense for the same set of regulations to apply to all anglers from the quad-state region.

But does it make sense for the rest of the coast to fish under different regulations?

In the aggregate, anglers in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts landed about 4,500,000 scup in 2015.  Anglers on the rest of the coast accounted for around 34,000, with more than 31,000 of those fish coming from New Jersey.   

Maryland, where scup are so scarce that its anglers reportedly landed a grand total of 309 scup in 2015, has a bag limit of 50 fish per day, while anglers in the northern states, which enjoy an abundance of fish, may generally land only 30.  Does that seem right to you?

While adopting conservation equivalency for scup probably doesn't cause any harm, it’s also hard to argue that doing so does any significant good.

Things reallyh start to get problematic when conservation equivalency is invoked for purely “socio-economic” reasons.  

I’ve said before that if my involvement with fisheries issues has taught me anything, it’s that if folks try hard enough, they can always find a reason to do the wrong thing.  Just about everybody can come up with a reason to kill too many fish.

Applying conservation equivalency to the coastal striped bass fishery clearly demonstrates that point.

As a lot of folks know, striped bass are a migratory fish, that travel for hundreds of miles up and down the Atlantic seaboard.  Although there are small spawning populations in a number of rivers between North Carolina and Maine, most of the coastal migratory stock is spawned in Chesapeake Bay, with other smaller, but still important, spawning areas in the Hudson River and the Delaware River estuary.

Once mature and a part of the coastal migratory population, an individual striped bass may migrate from wintering grounds off North Carolina all the way up to Maine and back south again in the course of a single year.

Striped bass abundance is largely driven by the success of the annual spawn, which in turn seems driven, at least in Chesapeake Bay, by environmental conditions.  Cold winters followed by wet springs tend to produce large year classes, while warm winters and dry springs have led to the smallest year classes on record.

When the same fish are traveling through the waters of multiple states, there is no biological justification for regulations that subject those fish to different rules as they travel from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  

In fact, such regulations can be an impediment to management.  At the October 2014 Striped Bass Management Board meeting, where a new, more restrictive addendum to the management plan was being created, a representative of the Striped Bass Technical Committee noted that

“the technical committee has greater certainty in the percent reduction of simple management measures…
“The technical committee does not have a specific recreational management option, but does remind the board that more simple management measures have been successful when managing striped bass in the past.”
In other words, gauging the effectiveness of uncomplicated management measures—say, a 1-fish bag limit and 28-inch minimum size—applied coastwide is relatively simple.  Give states the freedom to adopt slot limits, a second “trophy” fish or other alternate management measures, and things get a lot more complicated.

But, of course, that doesn’t stop states from trying to connive ways to increase their own anglers’ kill.

At that October 2014 meeting, Adam Nowalsky, the legislative proxy from New Jersey, set the tone early when he stated, soon after the meeting began

“I think we just need to be very clear on the record for the audience that the options we select today may not be the options that individual states implement and that phrase ‘all jurisdictions will implement’ really only means in the absence of them bringing forward a conservation equivalent proposal, and I just wanted confirmation of that.”
It was certainly very clear, from his statement, that even if the Management Board adopted a 1-fish bag limit, or other conservative measures, New Jersey had no intention of going along.

New Jersey's intent was reinforced later in the meeting, when Mr. Nowalsky tried to convince the Management Board to adopt no specific management measures at all, but rather made a motion that

“the states submit for technical review and board approval conservation equivalency proposals for 2015 that achieve the 25 percent and 20.5 percent reductions for the coastal and Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries, respectively.”

He justified his motion, which was amended to merely address the coastal fishery, by saying

“States are expected to come forward with proposals, anyway.  By selecting one of the proposals here tonight, I believe we’re doing ourselves an injustice in two areas.  One, we’re setting an expectation with the public that all states are going to come back with that regulation exactly.  If we go ahead and come for a proposal for a one-fish limit, let’s say, and most states come back with two-fish conservation proposals, then you’re going to have an outcry from the public about why we’re allowing that.
“Secondly, I believe that the column that is in the table [of management options] on the right-hand side that describes a specific percentage associated with each of the specific options would also serve to be misleading when our conservation proposals are going to come back at the 25 percent target and not the numbers that are higher up to 31 percent in the column.”
It’s a telling comment.

Mr. Nowalsky had no regard for the overwhelming public support for a one-fish bag limit.  Even if the Management Board adopted such a limit, he expected “most states,” which certainly would include New Jersey, to ignore the will of the angling public and support a bigger kill, even if doing so led to an “outcry” from a public that he clearly held in contempt.

In addition, he was making it manifest that, even if the Management Board adopted a more conservative measure, anglers in states which did the right thing and followed that board’s advice would be put at a disadvantage when compared to those in states which adopted conservation equivalency, where any harvest reduction would be limited to the minimum 25 percent required by the Management Board.

When you think about it, that’s a pretty troubling message, on a number of levels.

Mr. Nowalsky’s motion didn’t fly, and was quickly amended.  But the amendment was a little strange; it would have set a 1-fish bag and 32-inch minimum size, but still allow any conservation equivalent proposals to only achieve a 25% reduction.

David Simpson, the fisheries director from Connecticut, quickly saw the problem with that, and made an eloquent case against conservation equivalency, saying

“I’m concerned it is going undermine one of the most desirable features of striped bass management, and that has been consistency among states…one at 32…is probably, I’m going to guess a 40 percent reduction…
“[Y]ou’re adding four more inches to 28 and [1 fish at 28 inches is a] 31 percent [reduction], or almost half of that by conservation equivalency; we’re all going to go home and be under a great deal of pressure to do something different.  Even if we don’t, our neighbors will…we’re going to end up three different sets of rules within a 3.5 mile radius of [where the meeting was held in Mystic, Connecticut].  I would be OK with [1 fish at 32 inches], certainly, but not with its conservation equivalency.  [emphasis added]”     
However, the Management Board didn’t heed his wise words, and ultimately adopted recommended regulations that included a 1-fish bag and 28-inch minimum size on the coast, which would theoretically reduce fishing mortality by 31%, but set the conservation equivalency standard at 25%. 

For the recreational fishery in Chesapeake Bay, no management measures were recommended at all; regulations merely needed to achieve a conservation equivalency of 20.5%.

Nearly two years later, we know how that turned out.

Most coastal states adhered to the 1 fish bag and 28-inch minimum size recommended by ASMFC.  Collectively, they achieved a fishing mortality reduction of 41%, somewhat better than the 31% predicted.  However, New Jersey, which always intended to ignore the recommended management measures in favor of conservation equivalency, didn’t come close to matching the performance of the other states.  

Reducing its fishing mortality by a mere 18.7%, it failed to meet even the minimum standard of 25%.

Yet New Jersey did well compared to the Chesapeake Bay states.  Not only didn’t they come close to reducing their fishing mortality by 20.5%, but they didn’t reduce it at all.  

Instead, recreational striped bass landings in the Chesapeake increased by 53.4%

And that probably says all that we need to know about adopting conservation equivalency for “socio-economic” reasons, because “socio-economic reasons” is just another way to say “killing more fish.” 

When conservation equivalency is adopted for biological reasons, those biological factors tend to limit the catch in a way that makes alternate regulations truly “equivalent” to those recommended by ASMFC.

However, conservation equivalent regulations adopted for “socio-economic” reasons are rarely anything more than a way to game the management system, allowing states to manipulate the data in a manner that will increase their anglers’ kill.

Thus, it is well past time for ASMFC to take a hard look at how conservation equivalency is used in its management plan, and to adopt a firm policy of “One Coast, One Rule” unless the biology of the managed stock dictates otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. You are right Charlie. It is just gaming the system by greedy people-it is so clearly transparent in this great example-striped bass