Sunday, May 28, 2017


On May 1, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) released a request for proposals “to evaluate the feasibility of developing a fishing mortality (F) based management approach to the recreational summer flounder fishery.”

Currently, summer flounder are managed with a combination of bag limits, size limits and seasons intended to constrain recreational harvest to, or below, the annual catch limit (ACL), and thus prevent overfishing. There is no coastwide consistency in the measures adopted; they regularly differ from state to state although, for regulatory purposes, some states have been combined into two- or three-state regions.
In December of each year, the MAFMC and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board (Management Board) hold a joint meeting, where estimates of the current year’s recreational harvest are compared with the ACL for the upcoming season. Depending on whether such estimate is higher, substantially lower or just slightly below the ACL, managers will either adopt more restrictive regulations, relax existing rules or leave the current regulations unchanged.
It is a system that should work in theory but, in practice, leads to regulations that fluctuate wildly from year to year. As noted by James J. Gilmore, Director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Marine Resources,

“There seems to be a poor relationship between the recreational measures (derived from calculations based on MRIP) and the performance (as estimated by MRIP). Regional summer flounder management has been in place for the last 3 years (2014-2016). During this period regulations adopted by each region have not changed…This strategy has provided regulatory stability coastwide, which we have not experienced in many years. While this stability is generally appreciated by fishermen, managers benefit as well by having an opportunity to look at how capricious harvest and harvest estimates can be. Under consistent measures there are numerous factors that may influence recreational harvest in a state, with weather and fish availability to anglers among the most important. Harvest estimates are in turn influenced by the actual magnitude of harvest and the variability inherent in a survey (catch sampling and the subsequent catch expansion). Under 3 years of consistent regulation from 2014-2016, coastwide harvest estimates in numbers of fish have ranged from 1.6-2.5 million fish, varying as much as 50% between years. When we consider a smaller geographic scale, this variability increases to 66% between years in the CT-NJ region, and an average of 133% at the individual state level. It is difficult to say how much of this variability is due to estimation vs. actual harvest magnitude.”

Such fluctuations in landings estimates make it very difficult to craft regulations that protect the stock from overfishing while still providing anglers a reasonable opportunity to enjoy the summer flounder resource.
For the past few years, elements within the angling community have suggested that “by managing the recreational sector based on harvest rate as opposed to a poundage-based quota, managers have been able to provide predictability in regulations while also maintaining a healthy population.” The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) striped bass management program is often cited as a successful example of such an approach.

MAFMC seems to be buying into that argument, for in its request for proposals, it said that
“An F-based recreational fishery management approach to similar to [sic] that implemented by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic Striped Bass could be explored or used for comparison…Benchmark or update stock assessments monitor fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass trends and relationship to the established reference points. Depending upon the stock assessment results, if warranted, regulatory changes are then made to reduce fishing mortality and promote stock rebuilding.”
So exactly how would an F-based management plan work? And could such an approach work for summer flounder?
To answer those questions, one must first realize that managers are already using fishing mortality to manage summer flounder. In itsreport to the August 2016 meeting of the MAFMC, the Summer Flounder Monitoring Committee (Monitoring Committee) explained that more restrictive regulations were needed because “The fishing mortality rate (F) in 2015 was 0.390, 26% above the fishing mortality reference point FMSYPROXY=F35%=0.309.”

In fact, the three ways of calculating landings—fishing mortality, poundage and numbers of fish—are all more or less interchangeable. Applying the target fishing mortality rate to the biomass results in a hard-poundage quota; dividing that poundage-based quota by the average weight of the fish caught provides a quota based on numbers of fish. In the end, they’re merely three different terms that describe the same amount of dead fish.
Thus, when MAFMC, and some of the angling community, talk about “F-based” management, what they’re really talking about is a different way of calculating recreational landings. Instead of using the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) to determine annual landings, an F-based approach derives an estimate of recreational removals from a stock assessment.
Such an approach has both benefits and drawbacks.
There is little doubt that an F-based approach would lead to more accurate estimates of recreational harvest. In the current system, MRIP estimates provide the sole gauge of recreational harvest; in an “F-based” system, MRIP estimates would be only one data source among an array of fishery-dependent and fishery-independent surveys used to calculate the health of the stock.
On the other hand, an F-based management system depends on expensive, time-consuming stock assessments. The stock assessment update used to establish 2017 summer flounder regulations was based on data collected through the end of 2015. Managers augmented that update with more recent commercial landings information and MRIP-based estimates to determine how the stock fared in 2016.
In the sort of F-based management system being contemplated by the MAFMC, the MRIP-based estimates would not determine the next year’s regulations; instead, any changes would depend on stock assessments using data that is, at best, a year old, and potentially much older if the assessment isn’t updated on an annual basis.
That’s probably fine when dealing with a fully-rebuilt stock, as a single year of modest overharvest—perhaps even a couple of consecutive years—is unlikely to do significant harm to the population. However, in the case of summer flounder, we’re dealing with a population that, according to MAFMC’s Science and Statistics Committee, “is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not taken.”

When dealing with a stock in that kind of condition, which has already suffered from six consecutive years of below-average spawning success, such stock could easily become overfished by the time that managers, dependent solely on a stock assessment, discovered that overfishing was taking place.
Striped bass, although often touted as a good example of why F-based management works, actually illustrate why such an approach is beset with problems.
About a decade ago, the striped bass found itself in a situation very similar to that now facing summer flounder. Spawning success was below average in four out of the five years between 2006 and 2010. In response, the spawning stock biomass fell from around 78,000 metric tons (mt) in 2003 to approximately 58.2 mt in 2012, just above the 57.6 mt threshold that defines an overfished stock.

Fishery managers’ response to the striped bass decline was very different from their response to summer flounder. In the case of summer flounder, when landings exceeded poundage-based catch limits, recreational regulations were immediately changed in an effort to reduce harvest to sustainable levels.
In the case of striped bass, anglers began expressing concerns for the health of the striped bass stock around 2007, but since there was no poundage-based annual catch limit in place, managers didn’t even consider any remedial action until a 2011 assessment update warned that “Female [spawning stock biomass] will fall slightly below the threshold by 2017.” At that point, the stock would be deemed “overfished,” yet ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board ultimately decided to take no immediate action, because overfishing was not yet occurring and the spawning stock biomass was not yet overfished.

Today, the spawning stock biomass remains a mere 1,200 mt above the threshold denoting an overfished stock, and 13,000 mt below its target. Had striped bass been managed with a poundage-based annual catch limit, the regulations needed to halt the stock’s decline could have been adopted much sooner, and the striped bass spawning stock probably would be in much better condition.

Thus, both anglers and fishery managers would be wise to view any proposal to abandon annual catch limits for summer flounder with skepticism, and question whether any F-based management program can react quickly enough to detect and respond to further populations declines in the stock.
They should also be leery of H.R. 2023, the so-called Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, which explicitly provides for the use of “alternative fishery management measures” in recreational fisheries. As the MAFMC’s recent request for proposals illustrates, current federal fisheries law already allows for F-based management measures, but such measures must be “consistent with and [meet] the Council’s requirements to implement Annual Catch Limits (ACLs) and Accountability Measures (AMs) as mandated under the Magnuson Stevens Act.”

H.R. 2023 could eliminate such requirements, and permit the use of alternative management measures with no reference to ACLs or accountability measures at all.
Could such alternative management measures work for summer flounder?
Perhaps, if the stock was at or above target levels, and managers continued to update the assessment annually, so that they could catch any change in stock status in a reasonably timely manner.
But given that the summer flounder stock is now at real risk of becoming overfished, the delays inherent in an F-based system make it more likely that abundance could slip beneath the threshold before anyone realized that overfishing remained a problem. That makes abandoning a hard-poundage catch limit a bad idea at this time.
This post originally appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Thursday, May 25, 2017


Although New York and Connecticut weren’t pleased by the harvest reduction, both states bowed to biological realities of the situation and adopted the new rules.  

That didn’t happen in New Jersey, where spokesmen for the angling community, abetted by legislators and their state regulators, threw a months-long hissy fit that appeared to reach its culmination at the Management Board’s May meeting, when the state’s representatives proposed alternative management measures which would allow the state’s anglers to fish under an 18-inch size limit if they chopped 24 days off of the end of their season and the state took a few feel-good actions that did not rise to the level of regulatory mandates.

Debate on the New Jersey proposal dragged on for three hours after the meeting’s scheduled end.  Finally, perhaps out of a hope to get something for dinner before all of the restaurants closed (or, perhaps more likely, because after listening to something like six hours of near-uninterrupted whining, the other states’ representatives were in immediate need of a couple of drinks) the Management Board voted to send the proposal to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Technical Committee for a thorough analysis.

At that point, although the Technical Committee had not yet ruled on the biological merits of the new proposal, New Jersey declared victory.  An article in the Asbury Park Press proclaimed that

“A compromise is close is close on summer flounder regulations,”

Now, it seems that the Garden State fishing community, along with its regulators, acted a bit too fast.

A special Management Board meeting was held by conference call last Monday, to receive the Technical Committee’s recommendation on New Jersey’s alternate management measures and to decide whether to approve New Jersey’s adoption of such measures for the 2017 season.  To gain Management Board approval, New Jersey would have to convince the Technical Committee that its proposal would reduce fishing mortality by at least 30%, when compared to 2016.

The New Jersey proposal, as explained in a memo provided to the Management Board, could be broken down into three distinct segments.  The first were the restrictions on anglers’ actions—the 18-inch size limit, 3-fish bag limit and 104-day season; those would supposedly reduce landings by 24%. 

The state then argued that its preferred management measures would lead to far less discard mortality than would the measures adopted by ASMFC, and that such reduced discard mortality would count for another 6% reduction in overall fishing mortality.

Finally, the state proposed to engage in an angler education process that would provide 50,000 hooks, of a type believed to reduce release mortality, to for-hire vessels and tackle shops throughout the state.  Garden State anglers made more than 1,400,000 trips in pursuit of summer flounder last year, so those 50,000 hooks probably wouldn’t go very far, and there would be no regulation mandating their use.  However, New Jersey still maintained that such hooks, coupled with an angler education program that involved both videos and other materials on how to safely release fish, would be good for another 2% reduction in fishing mortality.

Thus, New Jersey argued, its alternative management measures would cut harvest by 32%.

The Technical Committee just didn’t buy it, and reported that the New Jersey proposal did not have “conservation equivalency” with the measures adopted by the Management Board in February.

That pretty well doomed any chances of the proposal being approved by the Management Board.  Even so, after the Technical Committee made its presentation, New Jersey took the floor in support of its proposal, made a motion that it be accepted by the Management Board, and waited for someone to second to that motion.

And then, throughout a long, embarrassing silence, they waited some more.

Finally, Michael Luisi, the Maryland fishery manager who chairs the Management Board, broke the silence to make another call for someone to second the motion.

The silence prevailed.  Not a single Management Board member, from any of the other states, believed that the New Jersey proposal was worthy even of discussion, much less of adoption.

If that is the case, ASMFC is ready and willing to invoke provisions of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which could shut down all commercial and recreational fluke fishing in the state until it complies with the Management Board’s decisions.  The relevant portion of that law provides

“The Commission shall determine that a State is not in compliance with the provisions of a coastal fishery management plan if it finds that the State has not implemented and enforced such plan within the timetable established under the plan…
“Upon making any [such] determination…the Commission shall within 10 working days notify the Secretaries of such determination…
“Within 30 days after receiving a notification from the Commission…and after review of the Commission’s determination of noncompliance, the Secretary [of Commerce] shall make a finding on
“1.  Whether the state in question has failed to carry out its responsibility [to implement the required management measures]; and
  2.  if so, whether the measures that the State has failed to implement and enforce are necessary for the conservation of the fishery in question…
“Upon making a finding…that a state has failed to carry out its responsibilities under…this title and that the measures it failed to implement are necessary for conservation, the Secretary shall declare a moratorium on fishing in the fishery in question within the waters of the noncomplying State…”
So the big question is:  What happens now?

The answer is unsatisfying, and a little unclear.

After deciding not to approve New Jersey’s proposed management measures last Monday, the Management Board, in a 9 to 1 vote (with both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abstaining), recommended that ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Policy Board find New Jersey out of compliance with the required management measures.  A conference call scheduled for June 1 will provide the Policy Board an opportunity to decide that question.  (The Policy Board actually found New Jersey out of compliance at its regular May meeting, but because New Jersey adopted the 3-fish bag and 104-day season since then, NMFS advised that a new vote would be needed.)

The results of that vote will be quickly communicated to the Commerce Department, which will have up to 30 days to make its decision.

Thus, under a best-case scenario, New Jersey will be able to remain non-compliant at least through early July, stealing fish from the other states and shifting the burden of conserving the stock onto the shoulders of others.

Once the Secretary of Commerce makes his decision, things could go in one of two ways:  While New Jersey is clearly out of compliance, the Secretary could buy the state’s argument that its regulations achieve the desired landings reductions, and that the measures adopted by ASMFC are not necessary to conserve the stock.  Or, the Secretary could confirm ASMFC’s findings and impose a moratorium on fluke fishing in New Jersey waters.

If the Secretary elects the former course, New Jersey will be able to thumb its nose at the Management Board, maintain its smaller size limit at the expense of the other states, catch more fish than the science would otherwise permit and in a worst-case, if hopefully unlikely, scenario, perhaps push the stock into an overfished state. 

By failing to find New Jersey out of compliance, the Secretary would encourage other states to challenge other ASMFC management measures with their own questionable statistics, and thus do real harm to the supposedly cooperative interstate management system.

If the Secretary does impose a moratorium, the impact of such action would depend on the effective date.  

A moratorium that became effective immediately after the close of the Secretary’s 30-day fact-finding period would close down New Jersey’s fishery during the critically important months of July and August, and thus force the state to come into compliance as soon as it possibly could.

On the other hand, if the Secretary gave the state 30 days to come into compliance, New Jersey would be able to enjoy noncompliant regulations throughout the month of July and the first days of August, while doing additional harm to the stock and demonstrating that there is real benefit in ignoring ASMFC mandates for as long as legally possible.

Right now, it’s impossible to say how this will play out.  

Anglers interested in maintaining a sustainable stock can only hope that the Secretary acts quickly to find New Jersey out of compliance, and imposes a moratorium that becomes effective as soon a practicable, in order to protect both the health of the stock and the health of the management system on which many stocks depend.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


It was a far smaller cut than the Management Board had originally contemplated.  The original draft of Addendum XXV, which was sent out for public comment after ASMFC’s February meeting, stated that

“The Southern New England (SNE) lobster stock is at record low abundance and is experiencing recruitment failure.  The poor stock condition is the result of environmental factors, such as warming waters, and continued fishing mortality.  As an initial management response, the American Lobster Management Board initiated this Draft Addendum to consider increasing egg production in SNE by 20% to 60%.  This addendum focuses on increasing egg production so that, if environmental conditions become favorable, the SNE stock can benefit from a strong recruitment year.  [emphasis added].”

ASMFC never imposed such a moratorium, and took no other action to substantially reduce the fishing mortality rate experienced by southern New England lobster.  Addendum XXV was ASMFC’s feeble response to a 2015 benchmark stock assessment which found that

“the inshore portion of the SNE stock has clearly collapsed…It is believed the offshore area of SNE depends on nearshore settlement as a source of recruits.  Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and Review Panel believe the stock has little chance of recovery unless fishing effort is curtailed…Hence, by any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment can be preserved.  [emphasis added]”
At the August 2015 meeting of the Management Board, Dr. John Hoenig, Chair of the panel who peer-reviewed the benchmark assessment, explained why there was still reason to take action in an effort to preserve the southern New England stock.

“Climate change is not uniform., so you have on average warmer temperatures.  That doesn’t mean that every year is going to be warm.  My personal feeling—and I think it can be substantiated—is that it seems Southern New England is more sporadic recruitment. 
“When you get a year with good temperatures, you might get some decent settlement, but it won’t be every year because the trend is to get too warm.  That is why what I was saying is you can get some good recruitment if you get a good year or a year that is not favorable to all the causes of mortality provided you have some spawners left.
“If you eliminate all the spawners, then even if you have a cool year or good year conditions, without the spawners you won’t get the recruitment.”
G. Ritchie White, the Governor’s Appointee from of New Hampshire, asked

“Dr. Hoenig, the technical committee has recommended to us for a number of years a moratorium in Southern New England.  My question to you is do you see anything short of that that would have the ability to potentially save what stock is left?”
Dr. Hoenig replied

“Speaking personally, I don’t see anything short of that,”
although he noted that the peer review committee did not discuss that specific question.

Despite such clear scientific consensus, the American Lobster Management Board responded with a mere 5% increase in egg production.

“You’re sacrificing the lobstermen for the lobsters.  They get paid to manage the fisheries and are doing it at our expense.”  

The vast majority of lobstermen just shrugged off the scientific advice, and opposed any harvest reductions at all.  

Such opposition was expressed by groups such as the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, the Area 3 Lobster Conservation Management Team and the Lobster Conservation Management Team for Lobster Conservation Management Area 5.  Both the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association and the New Jersey Council of Diving Clubs also expressed qualified support for the status quo, but stated that they could accept regulations leading to a 20% increase in egg production under certain circumstances.

Elected representatives from several states expressed their concern with Addendum XXV’s impact on the lobster industry.

Faced with such opposition, the Management Board wasn’t willing to follow the scientific advice either.  Instead of taking meaningful action to increase egg production, it made a cosmetic gesture, adopting a 5% increase in egg production that will exist on paper, but will be extremely difficult to detect in the real world.

In doing so, they not only wasted what might be their last opportunity to prevent the collapse of the offshore lobster population, they also voted to waste the time of the various regional lobster management teams—five separate lobster management areas, and thus five separate regional management teams, will have to meet to determine the appropriate regional management measures—and of the state fishery management agencies that will have to go through a long regulatory process to adopt the management measure that are ultimately chosen.

And it will be a waste of time; a 5% increase in egg production will have no more real-world impact on the lobster stock than doing nothing at all.  

When the stock is in such perilous shape that leading scientists say that only a moratorium has any chance of turning things around, the proposed 5% increase in egg production isn’t even a good-faith effort to get something done.  It is more akin to farce.

Once again, southern New England lobster has demonstrated the weakness of ASMFC’s management approach.  The best available science can be ignored, and there is no requirement to rebuild even those stocks that have teetered over the edge of collapse.  At ASMFC, fishing stocks into oblivion is a legally acceptable thing to do, however morally detestable it might be.

And that is why it is so important to keep the conservation and management provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act strong and intact.  

Although they won’t protect southern New England lobster, which are managed by the states, Magnuson-Stevens will protect hundreds of other fish stocks that, without those provision, might well follow southern New England lobster down the road to perdition.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


About a year ago, my wife and I had a chance to do some red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.  I had been invited to a conference of outdoor writers who specialize in fisheries conservation issues, and Theresa had flown down to Texas with me; after the conference ended, Capt. Scott Hickman invited us to join two other attendees for a fishing trip in the Gulf.

Throughout the weeks leading up to the conference, coastal Texas had been raked by a series of severe thunderstorms.  Houston, just a few dozen miles from where we were staying, had experienced significant flooding.  However, as our boat passed between the jetties at Galveston, the sun was bright in the sky, and only a long swell from the southeast marked the surface of the open Gulf.

And that was a good thing, because we were going to have to run more than thirty miles to find some reasonably productive bottom.  

Texas state waters extend out nine nautical miles from shore.  In those waters, anglers may harvest four red snapper per day (two more than federal rules allow), the minimum size is 15 inches (an inch less than the limit in federal waters) and there is no closed season at all (giving anglers 362 more days to fish for red snapper than they have in federal waters this year, and 356 more days than they had last year).

That gives Texas anglers a lot of access to a limited resource that, when all is said and done, is pretty easy to catch.  Red snapper tend to aggregate over hard bottom, making them easy to find, and they’re not exactly finicky eaters; drop a reasonably appropriate bait—say, a whole, fresh menhaden—in front of their nose, and the odds are overwhelmingly good that they’re going to eat it.

Mix high levels of angling pressure with an easy-to-catch fish, and you end up with a lot of empty pieces of structure.  That seems to be what happened off Galveston, although I’ve been told that the inshore fishing has held up a bit better farther south along the Texas coast.

Mix largely empty state waters with a year-long state season, add an abundance of snapper in federal waters where more stringent regulations prevail, and you end up with a lot of unprincipled anglers crossing the line, figuring that a fast boat and a dearth of enforcement personnel probably means that they can poach fish during the closed federal season and make it back into state waters undetected.  At that point the fish will appear to be legal, state-waters catches, and the angler survives to poach another day.

You also end up with a lot of empty bottom even in federal waters that lie close to shore, where boats can easily slip across the state boundary, poach their state limit of snapper, then make it back to state waters within thirty minutes after hauling their anchor aboard.

Although I fished out of Texas, which has the most outrageously liberal red snapper regulations on the entire Gulf Coast, similar situations exist, on a lesser scale, throughout the region, as every state there has gone out of compliance with the federal regulations.  I’m in regular touch with a charter boat captain from Alabama, who tells me that there is so much pressure on the inshore reefs and hard bottom that every year, he has to run a few miles farther to find reasonably quantities of decent-sized fish.

Now, a new announcement from the National Marine Fisheries Service shows that federal fisheries managers are very aware of the problem.

The announcement makes it clear that federal enforcement agents will be targeting poachers who enter closed federal waters to catch their “state” limits of red snapper, opening with the statement that

“In order to better protect the red snapper fish stocks in the Southeast, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, alongside other state and federal natural resource enforcement agencies, will continue to conduct increased enforcement efforts focused on the commercial and recreational red snapper fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic.
“’We’ve been working closely with our state partners to patrol the Gulf waters and ensure compliance with the state and federal fishing regulations with the goal of better protecting red snapper stocks,’ said Manny Antonaras, deputy special agent in charge of NOAA Enforcement’s Southeast Division.  ‘We make every effort to educate the public on the rules and regulations governing the various red snapper seasons; it’s a hot topic and a high priority for us.’”
Because the problem of red snapper poaching in federal waters has grown so large, NOAA Enforcement agents

“conducted hundreds of patrols and red snapper focused operations in the Gulf and South Atlantic”
last year.

Unfortunately, such patrols met with quite a bit of success.

“Last year’s red snapper-focused enforcement activities resulted in NOAA Enforcement taking an enforcement action on more than 120 separate violations, with most occurring when the federal season was closed.  The significant level of willful non-compliance with federal regulations is not only unfair to the vast majority of fishers who abide by the rules, but indicates that those who choose to violate the law have been undeterred by the financial penalty currently being imposed for violations.  In response, the NOAA Office of General Counsel has doubled the penalty for red snapper violations in the commercial and recreational fisheries this season.”
Fishermen who are caught taking red snapper from federal waters during the closed season will now be faced with a fine of $500, plus $50 per fish (up to 20 fish; after that, fines increase substantially).

It’s nice to know that poachers will pay more, if they get caught.  However, the odds of getting caught remain depressingly low—so low that the fine, if spread out over all of the trips a poaching angler made without being detected, will probably be far less than the cost of bait, fuel and other expenses typically incurred, which hardly makes such fine a deterrent.

Moreover, when anglers who play by the rules, and catch relatively few red snapper as a result, see fishermen in other boats consistently coming back with good, if illegal, hauls of fish poached in federal waters, but paying no price for their transgressions, the so-far compliant anglers will also be tempted to cross the line in order to bring home more fish.

Thus, while bigger fines are better than nothing, the real answer to curtailing recreational red snapper poaching in federal waters is ending the states’ propensity to establish seasons that do not comply to those established by NMFS.

So long as the states leave the door open to poaching with seasons that legitimize poachers’ catches as soon as they’re back in state waters, some anglers will always be willing to cross the line, and too many others will be tempted to emulate the poachers who, trip after trip, keep getting away with breaking the law.

Until the states stop enabling poachers in that way, ending recreational overfishing and increasing the length of the federal red snapper season will always remain unattainable goals. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Last February, striped bass anglers throughout the northeast were perturbed after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board voted to move forward with a proposed Addendum V to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan, which would have relaxed regulations and allowed an increase in the recreational striped bass kill.

The vote came just over two years after the same Striped Bass Management Board, in response to a 2013 benchmark assessment that showed that the striped bass spawning stock biomass was declining steadily and about to enter “overfished” territory, adopted Addendum IV to the management plan.  

Addendum IV was designed to reduce fishing mortality by 25%, and return it to the target level.  Addendum IV was also intended to provide some protection to the 2011 year class, which was the first dominant year class produced since 2003.

The acts leading up to the February vote to initiate Addendum V were fairly bizarre.

Before the ink was even dry on Addendum IV, and before the new regulations adopted pursuant to that Addendum were in force for even one year, a Management Board member from Maryland engaged in some remarkable hyperbole at the Board’s November 2015 meeting, saying

“I’ve heard the word ‘crisis’ from my stakeholders.  The charter, the recreational and the commercial industry are suffering greatly as a result of the reductions we’ve taken…
“What we’ve been hearing through Wave 4 [July/August] on the recreational harvest indicates that we’re grossly over that 20.5 percent [reduction mandated pursuant to Addendum IV].”
The Management Board didn’t immediately agree to consider an increase harvest because of those comments, but they did agree to ask ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee to prepare a stock assessment update that would report on the state of the stock at the end of 2015, and thus provide some insight on the impact of Addendum IV’s harvest reductions.

When the stock assessment update was released during the fall of 2016, it revealed that Addendum IV had done its job.  

The fishing mortality rate for 2015 was 0.156, just below the Ftarget of 0.18, but so close to that figure that it was statistically indistinguishable.  The population still hovered just 1,200 metric tons above the threshold that denotes an overfished stock, and was about 13,000 metric tons below the target level.

But what was really interesting was a memo provided by the Technical Committee to the Management Board at its October 2016 meeting.  It gave the Management Board, and the general public, their first opportunity to compare Maryland’s claims of “crisis,” “suffering” and “reductions” to some objective data. 

It turned out that Addendum IV caused such a deep “crisis” in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay striped bass fishery that striped bass anglers took 58% more trips in 2015 than they did in the base year of 2012. 

We should all have a “crisis” like that…

And it turns out that Maryland anglers were not “suffering” because they had to take “reductions” that were “grossly over” the 20.5% mandated by Addendum IV. In fact, Maryland anglers didn’t take any reduction at all.  Instead of cutting back their kill by 20.5%, they increased it by more than 50%.

So if they were “suffering” at all, it was because they were killing too many fish, rather than reducing their kill. 

You would think those sorts of revelations would have caused some embarrassment, but that was far from the case.  Instead of meekly accepting the facts, and sitting quietly for the rest of the meeting, the Maryland representative continued his efforts to kill more striped bass.

Despite the clear evidence that both recreational effort and recreational kills had increased (the commercial sector did, in fact, reduce their landings by the required amount), he still, with a straight face, declared to the Management Board that

“You’ve heard time and time again from stakeholders from Maryland and other places where the impacts that we have felt are pretty severe and tremendous regarding the squeeze…having only a few fish available to our fishermen,”
and noted that he would suggest additional action later in the meeting, which would undoubtedly be a motion to relax regulations.

At that point, Jim Gilmore, New York’s Fisheries Director and Chairman of the Management Board, pointed out that

“when we went down this road, the idea was that we would essentially put the reduction in and that it would essentially go for a three year period.  When we got to the 2018 assessment, then we would see if we had met those goals and if they were, I guess sticking for lack of a better word.
“Now we’re in the second year, and I guess we have different opinions of that.  Yes, we’re below the mortality target, and it looks like we’re on a right trajectory.  But I think from [the Technical Committee’s] presentation we’re still not out of the woods yet.  There is a lot of good news coming out of it, but there is still—you know the idea was to go for those three years.”
He also noted, in a comment directed to Maryland,

“I’ve had other questions from other commissioners and folks about well, because of that overage in the effort in the Bay, wasn’t there any payback or adjustment measure, and I said no that was the same thing.  If we saw exceedance, we were sticking on the three year plan in order to see if this was going to work or not.”
In other words, Maryland should, perhaps, be careful what it asked for, because it might not like the outcome if Addendum IV was reopened…

However, the Maryland rep remained undaunted.  He argued that

“if we were to move from [a fishing mortality rate of] 0.16 to 0.18, it would be a small tick, maybe a 5 to 8% liberalization, in terms of numbers…But what I’m thinking about and what I’m looking at, is the fact that perhaps just that very small change could be something that saves a few of the fishermen in my state.
“A half an inch In minimum size could mean a lot to our fleets, our charterboat and recreational fleet; more so the charterboat community…”
He then suggested that the Technical Committee be tasked to determine just how large a harvest increase could be and still keep fishing mortality at the target level.  He explained that

“we currently are 0.02; we’re underneath the fishing mortality target.  When we took the reductions that we did in Addendum IV, the analysis of 2015 indicates that we overshot the target.  The way I view that is it is like a little cushion in what we have available to us, as far as management action to fish at the target.  Fishing at the target is not a risky thing; it is the target for a reason.”
Michael Armstrong, a fishery manager for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, didn’t buy that argument, saying

“I see you are catching the same number of fish as you did last year.  The harvest is the same.  The number of caught and release are more.  I’m struggling to see the difficulty that this has created.
“…it is a fool’s errand to be messing around in the hundredths spot on an assessment.  We’re kidding ourselves if we think there’s a difference between 0.16 and 0.18…”
There was more debate, with the northeastern states generally skeptical of and opposed to anything that might lead to a bigger kill, while the other Chesapeake jurisdictions, abetted by New Jersey and Delaware, supported the Maryland effort.  However, when the vote was finally taken, Maryland won on an 8 to 6 vote.

That set the stage for last February’s meeting which, after brief public comment, opened with a Technical Committee report. 

The Technical Committee representative noted that estimated 2016 striped bass removals would be around 3.6 million fish, which was already about 18% above what was landed in 2015, and further stated that, if anything, that 3.6 million fish was probably an underestimate of what would ultimately be landed in 2016.  

However, for reasons that weren’t completely clear, the Technical Committee only used two calculations, one based on 2015 fishing mortality and one based on target fishing mortality, to determine future landings, and never considered the possibility that the 2016 fishing mortality rate, which was already slightly above target, might prevail in the future, even without a regulatory change.

Maryland quickly moved that an addendum, using no data from years after the end of 2015, be initiated, which could allow a 10% harvest increase.

Capt. John McMurray, the legislative proxy from New York, made the obvious objection, pointing out that

“…we could theoretically get away with a 10 percent increase in removals; if we base it on 2015.  If we base it on 2016, if I am understanding the briefing material right, it is suggesting that we need to do a 6 percent reduction…
“We should keep that in mind for one.  As far as economic impacts and the condition of the stock itself, certainly up the coast people suffer economic impacts from a reduction in abundance, me personally, and so do my colleagues.  While the stock is not overfished, we’re actually just above [the spawning stock biomass] threshold.  We’re not even close to [the spawning stock biomass] target.
“I wouldn’t claim that the stock is doing incredibly well, and it is incredibly abundant;  I still think it has a ways to go.  I really don’t understand how we’re harping on the fact that 2015 was just below target.  To me the [spawning stock biomass] would seem to be the more important indicator, and what we should base any management decision on…”
His views were echoed by Jason McNamee, a biologist for the State of Rhode Island, who noted that

“…the feedback that we’ve received from the Technical Committee is that there is too much uncertainty; both in the harvest estimates and in the differential between where the terminal estimate is, and where the fishing mortality target is, to judge them as being different from each other.  There is uncertainty in multiple aspects of all of the information, such that I don’t believe there is any buffer with which to work to increase harvest, change management measures.
“One final point is we’re focused on fishing mortality; but there is also pretty close proximity with the spawning stock biomass threshold.  The risk associated with dropping below that threshold, per the addendum is pretty severe as well.  I guess a judgment on the riskiness of initiating something like this, the risk is too high at this point with the information that we have available.”
Despite such clear warnings, the Management Board eventually, by a vote of 8-7, decided to move forward with the new Addendum V.  That set the stage for this month’s meeting, which was closely watched by striped bass anglers who were preparing to get together and fight once again to oppose an increase in harvest and to support conservative management measures.

Addendum V to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan would have permitted coastal states to reduce their size limit from 28 inches to 27, a measure which was calculated to increase coastal recreational harvest by 12%.  In the Chesapeake Bay, current regulations would be changed as needed to permit a 2-fish bag limit and a 19- to 28-inch slot between either September 1 and October 31 or May 16-August 31.  That would increase the Bay harvest by 9% (on top of a harvest that already increased by over 50%, instead of being reduced by 20.5%, as originally intended).  All commercial harvest quotas would be increased by 10%.

The Technical Committee noted that there was substantial uncertainty surrounding the options.  Specifically, the size of fish discarded (released) was imperfectly known, the change in the distribution and length frequency of fish available to anglers was “poorly understood” and not considered in the calculations, angler behavior and its change from year to year could not be predicted, the impact of the 2011 year class was not considered, and the increase in 2016 landings compared to 2015 remained a concern.

In addition, 43 comments were received from the public, all opposed to moving forward with Addendum V.

In the end, after considering all of those factors, the Management Board, by a vote of 10 to 5, decided to kill the Addendum.  Only Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, and the traditionally conservation-hostile New Jersey and Delaware delegations, supported the increased kill.

Halting work on the Addendum was the right thing to do.

I have often been critical of the ASMFC process, and its tendency to favor harvest over conservation measures.  Given the facts presented to the Management Board, I again have to question why it let the Addendum V process get as far as it did.  But that's a minor point.

What matters is the end result.  The Management Board responded to the science and the harvest data, and did the right thing for the striped bass.

For that, they deserve our thanks.


Thursday, May 11, 2017


Like a petulant child who employs every trick in the book to avoid eating his broccoli or going to bed at the appointed hour, the State of New Jersey will do everything that it possibly can to evade regulations that might hinder Garden State anglers’ ability to kill too many fish.

The state’s current effort to oppose regulations intended to halt the decline in the summer flounder population, and keep the stock from slipping beneath the overfishing threshold, is a clear case in point.

The ruckus began toward the end of 2016. 

The 2016 update to the summer flounder stock assessment revealed that summer flounder recruitment had been below average for six consecutive years and that summer flounder abundance had fallen to just 58% of the target level, was dangerously close to the overfishing threshold and was still declining.  In response, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the annual catch limit for summer flounder by 30%.

However, anglers didn’t know just how they would be affected until December, when a joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board would provide guidelines for 2017 regulations.  At that meeting, the State of New York made a convincing argument that the Management Board should consider an option that would allow New Jersey (and New York and Connecticut) anglers to keep 3 fluke at least 19 inches long, with the same 128-day season that they had enjoyed in the previous two years.

While it required area fishermen to give up 2 fish in their bag limit and raised the minimum size by an inch, it was far less restrictive than anything else that had been proposed.  Most anglers, in just about any other state on the coast, would have been happy that the regulations wouldn’t be any worse.  

In New Jersey, they threw a tantrum instead.

Not a single so-called leader of the local angling community had the guts to stand up and tell anglers the unvarnished truth:  That recruitment has been down for the past six years, the population is in decline and action needs to be taken to prevent the stock from becoming overfished. 

No one, including the state’s fishery managers, was willing to accept the state’s moral responsibility to help all of the other coastal states in their efforts to halt the population’s decline and begin building it back to sustainable levels.

Instead, they all whined, and if they stopped resembling a spoiled toddler at all, it was only to adopt the pose of a junior-high diva who would just die, and have her life ruined, if she had to abide by a 10:00 p.m. curfew on a summer Saturday night—except, in this case, the divas of New Jersey’s angling world emoted that

“Our industry is just killed,”

“a de facto moratorium on recreational summer flounder fishing in [the] state.”
The State of New Jersey filed a formal appeal of ASMFC’s decision, arguing that the state shouldn’t have to be bound by the regulations that the Management Board adopted in February, alleged that the Management Board didn’t consider the resulting economic hardship, questionable science and, yes, printing errors in the draft document that went out to public hearing when it made its decision.  The first two issues were dismissed out of hand—they had already been discussed in great detail by the Management Board—but the printing error may eventually be given a brief hearing.

Such a request would have been impossible under the regional management system that existed in 2014 and 2015, which included New Jersey in a region that included the other two states.  However, in 2016, managers made the mistake of allowing New Jersey to become its own region, so that its anglers fishing Delaware Bay could enjoy regulations less restrictive than the rest of the coast.  Even though the 2016 action compelled the rest of the state to adopt regulations similar to those in Connecticut and New York, it created a vulnerability that could be exploited by New Jersey at this week’s meeting.

Originally, the Management Board stood firm, and rejected New Jersey’s attempt to cadge special treatment from ASMFC.  However, after that first refusal, the folks from the Jersey shore bawled, and held their breath, and kicked their feet for fully three hours, and finally wore down the tired, hard-working grownups in the room.  They agreed to send the New Jersey proposal to the Summer Flounder Technical Committee for review.

So it looks like the fluke debate will go on.  New York and Connecticut will open their seasons next week, having responsibly adopted the regulations that ASMFC approved in February.  On the other hand, New Jersey’s irresponsibility may well be rewarded, and when its season opens on May 25, it is not unlikely that anglers there will still be able to keep 18-inch fish.

There is still hope that mature deliberation will ultimately prevail, and that the Technical Committee and/or the Management Board will not allow New Jersey to get its way and upend the regional structure that has helped to create equitable and consistent regulations in the tri-state area.  On the morning of May 11, ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Policy Board voted to declare New Jersey out of compliance with the Commission’s management plan, an action  which could lead to a complete closure of the state’s fishery, should the Management Board ultimately disapprove the 18-inch size limit and shortened season.

However, for the moment, the whiners seem to have won.  

They now stand a good chance of escaping any obligation to share the burden of rebuilding the fluke population with Connecticut, New York and the rest of the states.  New Jersey anglers may once again enjoy regulations less restrictive than those imposed on all of the other anglers in the tri-state region.

And it’s largely the other states’ fault.

Regardless of the species involved, New Jersey always tries to manipulate the numbers, and its fellow ASMFC members, in a way that allows them to kill more and smaller fish than their neighboring states. 

We saw that after Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan was adopted in 2014.  New Jersey convinced ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board to allow the state to employ “conservation equivalency” to adopt a 2-fish bag limit, rather than the one-fish bag adopted by all but one of the other states, in exchange for adopting specific slot limits, rather than a single 28-inch minimum size, for each of the striped bass taken. 

As a result, New Jersey was the only coastal state that failed to achieve the required 25% reduction in landings in 2015, but no effort was made to hold it accountable for its excessive landings.

Its more recent, successful effort to leave the tri-state summer flounder management region that it shared with New York and Connecticut, in order to win relaxed regulations in Delaware Bay, was already described above. 
Now, instead of being grateful that ASMFC was willing to help out Delaware Bay anglers, New Jersey is taking advantage of its status as a separate region to demand even more special treatment.

It’s well past time for a little tough love.

It’s time for the other states to put their foot down, and insist that New Jersey play by the same rules that apply to everyone else.

And if New Jersey throws a tantrum when told to behave, it’s time to give the state a time out, by enforcing the non-compliance finding and imposing a 0-fish bag and 0-day season, until the folks there finally learn that if they want to enjoy the right to exploit fisheries resources, they need to accept the accompanying responsibilities.  

If they’re not willing to do their part to clean up the mess that they helped to create, they should be banned from the playground.

Spoiled children always want more.  If New Jersey gets its 18-inch fluke limit this year, they won’t just say thanks and play nice.  Next year, they’ll demand something else, most likely the pre-2014 allocation scheme that gave the state 39% of all the recreationally-caught fluke on the coast.  If they don’t insist on that—at least not right away—it will be something else, because brats keep on whining until adults say “No!” and stand firm.

That’s something that ASMFC should have done long ago.