Sunday, October 16, 2016


Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission released two documents important to striped bass fishermen.  One was the Performance Evaluation of Addendum IV Regulatory Measures; the other was an update to the benchmark stock assessment, which described the state of the stock at the end of 2015.

Both documents held some fairly good news for striped bass fishermen.

The Performance Evaluation indicated that, taken as a whole, the Addendum IV measures worked; the goal was to reduce fishing mortality by 25%, and it appears that the actual reduction was almost exactly on target, at 25.9%.

The stock assessment update indicated that the fishing mortality rate in 2015 was 0.16, just below the fishing mortality target of 0.18.  While all such calculations have inherent error, there is a 99% probability that, even if fishing mortality was higher than the target, it was still lower than the overfishing threshold.

The assessment update also indicates that the stock did not become overfished in 2015, as the most recent benchmark assessment had predicted.  Instead, at the close of the year, female spawning stock biomass was estimated to be 58,853 metric tons, about 1,200 metric tons above the overfishing threshold, but still nearly 14,000 metric tons below the female spawning stock biomass target.  However, because of the error inherent in the calculation, there is a 41% chance that the stock is overfished (which falls to a 25% chance when the average retrospective bias over the past five years is taken into account).

If fishermen, both commercial and recreational, remove the same aggregate number of fish from the population in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018 that they removed in 2015, the chance of the stock becoming overfished drops to 20% (just 9% when retrospective bias is considered) by 2018.

At the same time, there is only a 5% chance (12% if retrospective bias is taken into account) that the female spawning stock will increase to target levels by 2018.

Thus, while ASMFC’s recent news is good, things need to get quite a bit better before anyone should start showing signs of relief.  This is a time to stay the course until the stock shows real signs of improvement, not a time to throw in the towel and start killing more fish.

Unfortunately, some members of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board think otherwise.  Last November, while the 2015 fishery was still underway, they were already talking about easing Addendum IV’s restrictions.

The notion of increasing harvest was pushed primarily by the various Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions. 

It began with Michael Luisi, representing the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who asked

“I would like to have it on the record, Mr. Chairman, in your opinion when will stakeholders have an opportunity and when will this board have an opportunity to look at making management change for the future or are we just expecting to hold the line where we are indefinitely into the future?”
It was a strange question, as the harvest reductions incorporated into Addendum IV to Amendment 6 oif the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan were intended to reduce fishing mortality to or below the target of 0.18, which the recent benchmark assessment set as a sustainable fishing mortality level; no rational fisheries manager would think it’s OK to reduce fishing mortality to the target level for only one year, and then start killing too many stripers again.

Management Board Chairman Doug Grout, Marine Fisheries Director for the State of New Hampshire, confirmed that in his reply, saying

“this was not a one-year reduction.  It was clear that this would be in place until we made an assessment of whether we had accomplished our goals of the addendum or not…The next stock assessment is scheduled to be in 2018; and that was at the point that we were going to be evaluating what the impacts of our management measures were in obtaining our goals and objectives here…”
That didn’t go over well with the folks from Chesapeake Bay, with Mr. Luisi proclaiming

“...Personally that is unacceptable.  It is unacceptable to me that we have to wait that long.
“…When we took those reductions, the coast-wide reduction of 25 percent was expected to return fishing mortality to target in one year.  This board gave us the opportunity in the Chesapeake Bay to seek a lesser reduction of 20.5 percent.  We implemented measures to achieve that 20.5 percent.  What we’ve been hearing through Wave 4 on the recreational harvest indicates that we’re grossly over that 20.5 percent.”
After using overwrought words such as “extreme,” “crisis” and “suffering greatly,” Mr. Luisi went on to make a motion that Addendum IV’s harvest restrictions be “reconsidered.”

That motion was quickly seconded by Rob O’Reilly, proxy for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, who gave support to the motion by saying

“I don’t recall being told that a benchmark assessment would take us to the next management regime.  I don’t understand why it would…Management can certainly take place without a benchmark.
“I really don’t understand where the benchmark is coming from…I know within the Chesapeake Bay we were to a point where we all thought—I did not think one year.  I thought we adopted a plan for a two-year approach to be reevaluated and go from there.
“…We always stayed within the guidelines that the board had; and quite frankly, there has been opportunities missed already on the 2011 year class, if everyone doesn’t know that…  [emphasis added]”
I attended the October 2014 Management Board meeting, where Addendum IV was adopted, and listened very hard to what was said, and just can’t understand where Mr. Luisi or Mr. O’Reilly might have gotten the idea that the Addendum IV restrictions would last for only one or two years.  

After all, Amendment 5’s recreational bag limit of 2 fish, and its 28-inch minimum size, was in force for twenty years, surviving the creation of Amendment 6 and a number of addendums.

The only mention of one year was in the context of the time it should take Addendum IV’s changes to reduce fishing mortality to target, and two years only came up in a compromise motion that failed to find majority support (and which I opposed on the record at the time).

There was nothing in the debate which suggested that the new regulations shouldn’t last as long as those adopted in 1995, although there was also nothing that said that they couldn’t be changes somewhat sooner.

But most certainly not in just a year or two…

Patrick Keliher, fisheries director for the State of Maine, understood the need for a prolonged period of conservative management and opposed the motion, noting

“Our tackle shops have gone out of business, guides have gone out of business.  The amount of recreational fishing activity on the coast of Maine has been slashed.  Mr. O’Reilly talked about a trickle of fish coming to the coast.  It is going to take a lot more than a trickle to positively impact the State of Maine.”
And thus the battle was joined, with coastal states generally opposing the motion (with the exception of Delaware and, of course, New Jersey, which is almost always on the wrong side of conservation debates) and the Chesapeake states in support.  Ultimately, a compromise was reached, in which the stock assessment would be updated as of the end of 2015, and the vote on Mr. Luisi’s motion (along with Delaware’s motion to extend the reconsideration of Addendum IV’s provisions to the coastal states as well) was indefinitely postponed.

So the big question is, what happens when the Management Board meets later this month?

The information contained in the Performance Evaluation and stock assessment update was moderately positive, but certainly suggested that managers need to stay the course and try to fully recover the stock, rather than settling for a spawning stock that falls far short of target abundance.

Will the dissidents from last November agree?

It’s hard to know.

Hopefully, Mr. Luisi, who claimed that his fishery was in “crisis” and that the reduction in Maryland’s recreational landings was “grossly over that 20.5%,” along with Mr. O’Reilly, who claimed that Virginia “always stayed within the guidelines” were sufficiently embarrassed to learn that their states didn’t reduce harvest at all, but were in fact produced substantially increased recreational landings—up 58.4% for the Bay as a whole—that they won’t continue to push for a bigger kill.

On the other hand, some folks in fisheries management don’t embarrass easily, particularly those who are trying to increase the harvest.  

Thus, anglers concerned with the striper’s future ought to watch the events of this month’s Management Board meeting very carefully, and be prepared to mount stiff opposition should initiate any plan to increase the kill.

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