Sunday, May 14, 2017
ASMFC DOES THE RIGHT THING FOR THE STRIPED BASS
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.