Thursday, October 27, 2016


The Center for Coastal Conservation is again trying to sell policymakers of the superior virtues of state fisheries management, and again trying to use striped bass as a good example.  In its recently-issued report, A Vision for Marine Fisheries Management in the 21st Century, Priorities for a New Administration, it claims that

“States are the experts at managing—very successfully—numerous fish species such as red drum, spotted sea trout, and striped bass.”
The Center is based down in Louisiana, far from the striper coast, and maybe if you look at striped bass management through swampwater-blurred eyes, it looks pretty good.  But to those of us who actually live close to the northern ocean, who remember what it used to be like, when stripers chased herring into the wash beneath a late November moon, the current state of the striped bass stock, and of striped bass management, doesn’t look that good at all.

We saw another example of how it fell short last Monday, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took the first steps toward increasing the striped bass kill, even though the spawning stock biomass remains a long way below its rebuilding target.

Like most efforts to hinder striped bass conservation over the past couple of years, this week’s effort was spearheaded by Maryland, which fought hard, if unsuccessfully, to derail the harvest reductions mandated by Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan two years ago.

Although Maryland, and the other Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, weren’t able to prevent ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board from adopting Addendum IV, they did manage to convince the Management Board to grant them one concession:  Instead of reducing landings in 2015 and beyond by 25%, compared to landings in 2013, Maryland and its Chesapeake neighbors would only be required to reduce landings by 20.5%, compared to a different base year, 2012.

Instead of being happy that they were granted a break not afforded to states on the coast, Maryland began whining a year ago about the “crisis” the cuts had caused, and how their fishermen were “suffering” as a result.  

Instead of staying the course until a new benchmark stock assessment could be released in 2018, less than one year into the new management regime, Maryland’s representatives on the Management Board were already fighting for a bigger kill.

Of course, when the final numbers came in, it turned out that far from “suffering” from a landings reduction, Maryland’s recreational fishermen had actually increased their harvest by more than 50%, compared to their 2012 landings.

That might have embarrassed some Management Board members into silence, but Michael Luisi of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources seemed to feel no shame.

Instead, he pointed out that Amendment IV apparently did its work slightly too well, and that fishing mortality for 2015 was estimated to be 0.16, a bit lower than the 0.18 mortality target.  

Apparently believing that it was his duty to increase his state’s kill as much as possible, and minimize the number of immature bass that might survive and possibly help to rebuild the spawning stock, Mr. Luisi made a motion

“to task the Striped Bass Technical Committee to 1) determine the percent liberalization of harvest that would increase fishing mortality (F) from the 2015 terminal year estimate of 0.16 to the [Fishery Management Plan] target of 0.18…”
That motion was remarkable on a number of levels.

The first was the thin justification for making the motion at all.  The difference between the 2015 fishing mortality rate of 0.16 and the target rate of 0.18 is surpassingly small—so small that the two rates aren’t really significantly different; there is always some error inherent in such estimates, and that inherent error could easily be large enough that the actual, rather than the estimated, 2015 fishing mortality was 0.18, if not a bit more (although it could also have been somewhat lower).

Then there is the question of whether regulations ought to be changed every time actual landings diverge from the target.  Try as they might, managers aren’t perfect.  It is almost certain that, despite all of their efforts, the actual fishing mortality rate in any given year will be a little higher or a little lower than the target figure.

But, of course, it’s safe to say that Maryland wouldn’t have made a motion to determine how much to reduce harvest if the 2015 mortality estimate had been 0.20, a bit higher than the target level.  In fact, if we can go back a few years, we can find instances where some members of the Management Board had wanted to reduce harvest due to a clear drop in striped bass abundance, but never got very far.

For example, a 2011 stock assessment update noted that abundance had fallen from 67.5 million fish in 2004 to 42.3 million fish in 2010, and stated that

“Forecasts of age 8+ abundance from 2010 to 2017 and spawning stock biomass from 2011 to 2013 at status quo F (0.23) and selectivity show an increase in abundance through 2011, but a subsequent decline in abundance through 2017.  Spawning stock biomass will increase slightly in 2011, but decline through 2013.”
After that information, which accurately predicted the state of today’s stock, was presented at the November 2011 Striped Bass Management Board meeting, Paul Diodati, representing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, asked

“…even if you add in future young-of-the-year indices that might be better than the past ten years, is that projection of [spawning stock biomass] going to change dramatically or not until after 2017?  In other words, you have a trajectory that the projections are suggesting that we’re approaching that threshold [which defines an overfished stock] in 2017 under current conditions or average conditions…
“It seems to me that given that the past seven years of poor or below average recruitment, it is inevitable that is going to translate into lower [spawning stock biomass] over the next several years regardless of what happens over the next three or four years relative to recruitment.”
Gary Nelson, who presented the stock assessment update and contributed to its preparation, answered simply,

“Yes, that’s true.”
So there was little question that, regardless of the strong 2011 year class and regardless of what recruitment looked like in the near future, there was a likelihood that the stock would be overfished, or nearly so, by 2017.  Yet when the time came to consider a draft addendum that would have reduced harvest to prevent that from occurring, a motion was made, which passed 9 to 6,  to postpone further action on such addendum until after a stock assessment was completed, something that would not occur for another two years.

Because that’s how things work at ASMFC.

The concept of conserving a declining stock is viewed with suspicion, and efforts to do so are seldom made until the population falls to a point near, or below, the threshold for an overfished stock.  On the other hand, any chance to increase the kill is quickly exploited, and action to do so is quickly taken, even if the population is far below the target that denotes a healthy and fully restored stock.

And that perennial truth about ASMFC seems to be playing out here once again.

To be fair, it’s far from certain that the Management Board will increase striped bass harvest.  The Technical Committee was only asked to determine the percentage increase in harvest that would, in theory, be needed to reach the target level.

Once the Technical Committee comes back with that number, the Management Board may decide that the change is too small to be worth worrying about.  

It may recognize the folly inherent in changing regulations based only on 2015 data, when there may have been higher landings in 2016.  

It may consider the poor 2016 spawn in Maryland, and decide that it makes sense to be cautious.

Or, it may move forward with measures that would increase the kill.

But the very fact that the Management Board would entertain Maryland’s motion, and open the door to even the possibility of increasing the striped bass harvest at this time, reveals the biggest flaw in striped bass management.

ASMFC isn’t subject to any enforceable standards.  There are no legal requirements that ASMFC’s management plans rebuild and adequately conserve striped bass or any other stock.  ASMFC’s management boards may, at any time, exercise their discretion free of legal restraints, and arbitrarily abandon management measures adopted just a year or two before.

Despite what the Center for Coastal Conservation might say, that sort of haphazard management just doesn’t work.  

That’s why ASMFC hasn’t managed to rebuild a single depleted stock in the past 20 years, although it has seen the health of a number of stocks decline during that time.

Right now, striped bass are badly in need of rebuilding.  The Maryland motion raises the question of whether ASMFC has the dedication and the discipline needed to get that job done.

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