Thursday, March 23, 2017


Over the past few years, anglers in New England and the upper mid-Atlantic have seen an abundance of black sea bass invade their local waters.  Unfortunately, because abenchmark stock assessment, completed in late 2011, was found to be inadequatefor management purposes, fishery managers have had to set regulations without the aid of clear biological reference points.  Do to such lack of data, black sea bass catch limits have been very restrictive, to avoid overfishing the stock.

At the same time, the abundance of fish has drawn a lot of attention from anglers, who are always eager to bring some of the good-tasting sea bass home.  Recreational black sea bass landings increased 46% between 2012, when 1.87 million fish were landed, and 2016, which saw 2.73 million black sea bass brought home. 

During that same time, the average-sized fish has been growing larger.  When measured by weight rather than numbers of fish, landings increased by 77%, from 3.18 million to 5.82 million pounds.

A combination of low catch limits and increasing recreational landings have forced fishery managers to impose very restrictive regulations in an effort to avoid overfishing.  Such regulations often angered anglers, who couldn’t understand why the rules needed to be so restrictive given the abundance of fish.

Thus, the angling community eagerly awaited the results of anew benchmark stock assessment, which was completed late last year.  Last January, rumors began to spread that the assessment had successfully passed through the peer-review process, and would allow the annual catch limit to be substantially increased.

It wasn’t long until the rumors were confirmed; the 2017annual catch limit for black sea bass would be increased by 52%, compared tothe year before.  For a brief time, anglers were happy. 

Then word got out that the estimate of 2016 recreationalblack sea bass landings was actually higherthan the 2017 recreational harvest limit, even though that limit had been increased by about 50%.  Recreational regulations would not be relaxed after all; based on the available numbers, regulations actually needed to be a bit more restrictive, to reduce landings by 8%.  The National Marine Fisheries Service actually gave anglers a break by waiving such additional restrictions, and maintaining the 2016 status quo.

However, anglers didn’t feel like they were getting a break; they expected some regulatory relief. 

And things got worse when the original estimate of landings in November/December of 2016 was replaced by actual figures from the Marine Recreational Information Program, which showed that landings in the last two months of the year were far higher than expected; now, anglers were very possibly facing regulations tight enough to reduce landings by over 20%.

So the question is, given that the population of black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina is currently more than twice the number of fish needed to produce maximum sustainable yield, and given that the recreational harvest limit has been increased by roughly 50%, why are anglers looking at more restrictive regulations in 2017?

The answer lies in the uncertainty surrounding the harvest estimates provided by the Marine Recreational Information Program .  The problem doesn’t arise out of MRIP itself, but in the way the MRIP numbers are used.  Managers try to apply the landings estimates on too small a scale, and by doing so, introduce a high level of uncertainty into their predictions of how effective management measures will be.

“The size of sampling error depends upon the sample size, the sample design and the natural variability within the population.  As a general rule, increasing the sample size decreases sampling error.
“…the more samples you draw, the more precise your estimate will be.”
The MRIP Handbook also notes that

“In MRIP, sampling error is reported as percent standard error or PSE which expresses the standard error as a percentage of the estimate.  The lower the PSE the greater the confidence that the estimate is close to the population value.”
That being the case, managing a fishery on a coastwide basis, using annual landings estimates, would provide the largest sample size, the most accurate estimate of black sea bass landings and regulations, based on such landings estimate, that are most likely to constrain harvest to or below the annual harvest limit.

Unfortunately, that’s not how black sea bass are managed.

While NMFS does establish size limits, bag limits and seasons for federal waters, it is the states, acting through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which establishes regulations for each state.  And it is those state regulations that create the real problems.

Most black sea bass are landed in the states that lie between Massachusetts and New Jersey.  None of those states shared the same regulations in 2016.

In New Jersey, anglers could keep 10 black sea bass, at least 12 ½ inches long, from May 23 through June 19.  Then the season closed for a few days, to reopen on July 1; from then until August 31, the bag limit dropped to just 2 fish, although the size limit remained the same.  After that, the season closed for nearly two months, reopening on October 22 and remaining open for the rest of the year; however, during that period, the bag limit increased to 15 fish, and the size limit increased to 13 inches.

Confused yet?  And that was only one state…

New York was a little better.  It maintained a 15-inch minimum size throughout the year, but steadily increased its bag limit from 3 between June 27 and August 31, to 8 in September and October and 10 in November and December.  

On the other side of Long Island Sound, Connecticut had the same 15-inch size limit, but its season ran from May 1 through December 31.  For most anglers, the bag limit was 5 fish per day, but if they fished from a party or charter boat, the bag limit increased to 8.

In Rhode Island, the sectors were all treated the same, and a 15-inch minimum size prevailed throughout the season.  However, the bag limit changed with the seasons, from 3 fish from June 24 through August 31 to 7 fish from September 1 through the end of the year.

Out of all the five northern states, only Massachusetts had one simple set of regulations—a 5-fish bag, 15-inch minimum size and a season that ran from May 21 through August 31.

When you look at the widely varying regulations between neighboring states that, in many cases, share the same waters, you can’t help but wonder how such a hash of regulations can properly manage the fishery.  And the truth is, they don’t manage it well at all.

Remember the percentage standard error, or PSE, that gauges the precision of the recreational harvest estimates generated by MRIP?  It tells the whole story.

If we look at the estimate for all black sea bass caught in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region in 2016, without breaking the estimate down by state, sector or wave, we find a PSE of 8.3.  That’s reasonably precise, and provides a pretty good basis for management measures. 

But if we start breaking that down into states—say, the estimate for Massachusetts, which maintained consistent regulations throughout the year—the PSE jumps to 18.5, which is still adequate for management purposes, but lacks the precision of the regional estimate.  Regulations based on state-by-state catch estimates, rather than the regional estimate, will embody greater uncertainty, and are somewhat less likely to achieve their management goals.

Then, when you go beyond mere state estimates, but begin to slice-and-dice the state landings by sector or by two-month “wave,” the uncertainty is compounded.

If we look at New Jersey, the PSE is 27.1 for the short May-June season and 22.8 for July and August.  It then jumps to an effectively unusable 55.8 for the few days that the season is open in September and October, and an unreliable 45.2 for November and December.  Given those PSEs, anyone who believes that the harvest estimates are reliable, or that the regulations will do much to stop overfishing is just kidding themselves.

Elsewhere in the northeast, where bag limits change but the size limit is constant and the seasons are not broken up by interim closures, PSEs are not quite so large, but still indicate a relatively low level of precision.  In New York, the PSEs are 20.9 for July and August, 28.6 for September and October and 33.0 for November and December.  In Rhode Island, the PSEs for the same periods are 21.3, 29.7 and 56.1, respectively, and 48.5 for the few days that the season was open in June.

That’s not very good.

Connecticut demonstrated that maintaining different bag limits for sectors, rather than for time of year, might only make things even worse, as 2016 PSEs were and completely useless 101.9 for shorebound anglers, 27.2 for party boats, an undependable 78.5 for charter boats and 17.0 for private vessels.

Yet no one should be surprised by such results.  Prior to the December 2015 joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee advised that it

“encourages the development of more consistent regulations between states within the regions.  The Monitoring Committee notes that the difficulty of analyzing the effects of new regulations increases with management complexity and hyper-customization of measures.  One of the intended benefits of ad-hoc regional management was to have similar regulations by region.  Complex sets of measures, including splits by mode, season, and sector, continue to be implemented, contrary to previous recommendations of the Monitoring and Technical Committees.  Additionally, MRIP data for state, wave and mode combinations is typically associated with very high PSEs that often are higher than the percentage of the landings adjustments required…”
However, the states ignored that good advice, and again adopted management “hyper-customized” management measures that, in the end, don’t represent an intent to properly manage the fishery as much as they do an effort to manipulate the data in a way that is likely to provide the longest season and biggest kill for that states anglers.

By doing so, the states gain in the short term, as the increased harvest opportunities tend to mitigate anglers’ and the angling industry’s complaints about restrictive regulations; however, such actions end up hurting the management process over the long haul, as overfishing ensues, which results in the sort of tightening regulations expected in 2017, that serve only to alienate anglers from fisheries managers.

Quite simply, the current approach to black sea bass management doesn’t work. 

It is time for the states to stop coddling the complainers who will never be satisfied with any restrictions on landings, and start acting responsibly, for the benefit of the fish, the fishermen and the fishery management process.

It is time to abandon overly-complicated regulatory schemes that stress the available data beyond the breaking point, and result in management measures that are doomed to fail.

It is time to adopt simple management measures that are consistent throughout the year, and throughout the region.  

Such approach was first tried with scup in 2004, when the states that accounted for more than 95% of the recreational landings joined together in a region that shared the same size limit, bag limit and season length.  Since then, the recreational scup fishery, which was once plagued by constantly fluctuating state harvests and resulting regulatory changes, has been remarkably stable, with abundant fish and generous bag limits.

Taking a similar approach to black sea bass management, with all states between Massachusetts and New Jersey sharing a common set of regulations, would probably be equally beneficial, and would almost certainly result in a more stable and predictable fishery than exists today.

That’s the right way to manage the fishery.  But to get there, states must abandon their narrow, partisan views, and look to the good of the whole.  

In today’s world, that’s always easier said than done.

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