Sunday, February 19, 2017


Various angling industry, boatbuilding and “anglers rights” groups, upset that the current, science-based federal fisheries law doesn’t let anglers kill as many fish as some might like to, have been making the argument that federal fisheries managers shouldn’t tie their regulations so closely to science and data, but rather should employ less statistically-rigorous means to regulate recreational fisheries.

“fisheries that sufficiently meet the needs of recreational anglers while providing extensive economic benefits to their state and national economies.”
It’s immediately apparent that the health of fish stocks or the integrity of marine ecosystems are not addressed by that industry statement.

Instead, the tackle and boatbuilding industries effectively encourage fisheries managers to tolerate chronic growth overfishing, when so many small fish are harvested that few older and larger fish survive. 

The Louisiana fishery for speckled trout (more properly known as “spotted seatrout”), in which managers tolerate growth overfishing so long as recruitment overfishing, when the number of new fish entering the fishery drops substantially, doesn’t occur, is an example of what such fisheries looks like.  They have high bag limits, low minimum sizes and very long seasons—if they have any seasons at all. 

By removing most restrictions on harvest and letting anglers keep a large proportion of everything they catch, such fisheries tend to maximize angler participation, at least until recruitment overfishing kicks in and the fish begin to disappear.  And as any angler knows, the more someone participates in a fishery, the more money they spend, so it can be argued that growth overfishing will provide “extensive economic benefits to…state and local economies”—and to the same angling and boatbuilding industries who are advocating for such a management approach.

“Since old fish are better able to buffer adverse environmental fluctuations, growth-overfishing can lead to magnified fluctuations of abundance and decreased biological stability.  If harvest has evolutionary consequences, these changes may be irreversible.”
But industries’ principal concerns rarely revolve around the future abundance of publicly-owned resources, the potentially irreversible impacts that they may be having on such resources or the public interest as a whole.  With a very few exceptions—the fly fishing industry, which has long championed conservation, and elements of the outdoor industry, currently battling Utah’s 19th Century approach to wild lands use come to mind—industry is normally concerned with maximizing the income of industry members, regardless of the collateral damage caused.

That’s why tobacco companies shouldn’t regulate public health, oil and coal companies shouldn’t regulate clean air and clean water (but, right now, apparently do) and the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries should not play a major role in managing fisheries.

Industries’ interests and the public interest are often just not the same.

However, the tackle and boatbuilding industries, in an attempt to advance their own interests, are holding the striped bass up as an example of effective fishery management, and are strongly suggesting that all popular recreational species should be managed like striped bass.

The industry apparently highlights striped bass because it is one of the few examples of states successfully rebuilding a marine fish stock, and the only example of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, perhaps the most obvious example of concerted state management, accomplishing such rebuilding. 

It is probably appropriate that the industry, in its efforts to roll back more than two decades of successful federal fisheries management efforts, are relying on a striped bass recovery that was completed a year before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 was adopted by Congress.  In the years since the striped bass’ recovery—and in the years since the Sustainable Fisheries Act was signed into law—federal managers have successfully rebuilt 39 marine fish stocks, while the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has failed to rebuild even one.

Moreover, the striped bass stock, once ASMFC’s shining success, isn’t looking so good lately and, if some state managers get their way, it may soon be looking even worse.

A stock assessment update released late in 2016 informed managers that, after one full year of reduced harvest, female spawning stock biomass stood at 58,853 metric tons, just 1.2 metric tons above the 57,626 metric ton threshold that defined an overfished stock, and more than 13 metric tons below the 72,032 metric ton biomass target.

Fishing mortality had been reduced to 0.16, exactly in line with the intent of the most recent Addendum to ASMFC’s striped bass management plan, which was

“to reduce [fishing mortality] to a level at or below the new target [emphasis added]”
of 0.18.

“the upper and lower bounds of the confidence intervals for both [fishing mortality] estimates would essentially overlap.”
Furthermore, they advised managers that 2016 fishing mortality would probably be slightly above the target, at or above 0.19.

Even so, and with the female spawning stock biomass hovering uncomfortably close to the “overfished” threshold, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board began the process for increasing the striped bass kill. 

According to a press release issued by ASMFC, such action was taken because of

“concerns raised by Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions regarding continued economic hardship endured by its stakeholders since the implementation of Addendum IV and information from the 2016 assessment update indicating fishing mortality is below the target.”

The fact that the Technical Committee advised that

“although the assessment is very good, it may not be able to distinguish between fishing mortality point estimates of 0.16 and 0.18”
wasn’t mentioned at all.  Neither was the fact that the point estimate of 2016 fishing mortality exceeded the fishing mortality target.

Because that is the way striped bass are really managed--with little heed for the science, and economics the prime concern.

That’s just the way that the tackle and boatbuilding industries want all stocks to be managed—to benefit the industry, and not the public at large.

Which is why the public, and not the industry or their favored state managers, may prove to be the striped bass’ salvation.

Because striped bass anglers aren’t happy with the proposed harvest increase at all, even though they would be the alleged beneficiaries.

On the Water Magazine is probably the foremost angling publication along the striper coast, with regional editions covering the fishery from Delaware Bay up through New England.  When it announced the possible harvest increase in its on-line edition, the response from striped bass anglers was one-sided and clear, with comments such as

“Once again the fisheries managers put the end user first rather than the fishery.  I would like to know where the fishery has been successfully managed by these intellectually challenged individuals,” and
“Although the report indicates that the ‘…striped bass stock is not overfished..’ it is a very low bar that is being measured…The measured stock, 58,853 mt, is no where near the target…and projecting out, would take years to recover to the target…It is just amazingly short sighted to revisit the reductions which were only just recently implemented in 2015.  It appears there is very little spine in the agency meant to properly manage the striped bass stock. [emphasis added]”
Along with the succinct, but nonetheless accurate

“No.  It’s a stupid idea.”
Striped bass anglers seem to get it.  Whether that’s because there is an institutional memory of the stock collapse of the 1970s and 1980s, which is passed down through the ranks by those of us who were there and remember, or whether it is because striped bass have always been viewed by anglers as something special, the largest and most challenging fish available to inshore anglers of the northeast coast, most seem to have a gut-level acceptance of the need for conservation to protect their beloved “striper.”

That pro-conservation attitude is reflected in the outdoor writers who cover the fishery.  Recently, Todd Corayer penned an article entitled “Stripers should not be overfished; so give Max a call” in the Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.  He urges readers to

“Please call Max Appleman immediately.  Max is the Fishery Management Plan Cooridinator for the Atlantic States Marine [Fisheries Commission] and his phone number is 703.842.0740.  Max is the man taking calls from people opposing or supporting a move the ASMFC is considering to increase the harvest of striped bass.  Actually, they call it ‘liberalizing.’
“’Liberalizing’ is a wonderful word; grammatically correct, passively deceiving.  To liberalize indeed conjures up thoughts of loosening a restriction, relieving something or someone of a burden.  In this context, the ASMFC is feeling pressure from fishermen in the Chesapeake who want to catch more bass.  They are using the arguments that under present data sets, stripers are not overfished or experiencing overfishing…So logically then, the Baymen protest, they should catch and take more.  I say no…
“A friend sent a brief report about the addendum to the amendment with a one line observation:  ‘Well, that sucks.’  I agreed and almost on moved [sic] to the next e-mail but that is precisely how bad ideas slide through the system.
“Fisheries management is front-loaded; if you wait for a public hearing six months into a government effort to let everyone know your big idea or an addendum to their addendum, the train will have already left the station.  Your best intentions will be best served at the start of the process.  Public comments all get read and analyzed and many get posted on a website somewhere but to effect change, we need to start at the beginning…
“Harvest numbers should not increase based on a few level years and a statement that mortality levels are lower than the threshold scientists determined.  It seems clear that fishermen in these parts recognize have a goal of population abundance and not permission to take more and more.
“…if you have any inkling to see a beloved fish stay protected with very manageable regulations, this is the time to let your voice be heard.”
I never met Mr. Corayer, but I suspect that I’d like the guy.  

He seems like most of the striper fishermen whom I know, folks who don’t seek to kill the last bass in the ocean.  But unlike far too many, he also understands that striped bass fishermen need to get involved in the management process.
His comments about getting involved early show that he has a good understanding of how the management process works.

I urge everyone who cares about the striper to get up off their chairs and play a role in the fight.

But I also urge everyone, whether they fish for stripers or not, to consider one more thing.

Should all of our fisheries, including those currently managed by fisheries managers, be “managed like striped bass,” where a well-conceived management plan can be overthrown for the sake of a fistful of dollars?

Or should we insist that our fisheries managers all begin to think like striped bass fishermen, putting the resource first and, like Mr. Corayer, “have a goal of population abundance and [are] not [seeking] permission to take more and more”?

Should anyone ask, I know what my answer would be...   

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