Sunday, April 21, 2019
SOME THOUGHTS ON REBUILDING STRIPED BASS
On April 30, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will meet for more than four hours, to discuss the 2018 benchmark stock assessment, and its conclusion that the striped bass stock is both overfished and subject to overfishing.
The actions that the Management Board decide to take at that meeting will likely determine the health of the striped bass stock, as well as the health of the striped bass fishery, for many years into the future.
If the Management Board acts responsibly, and moves quickly to end overfishing and rebuild the bass stock, we should see both the stock and the fishery recover fairly soon. However, if the Management Board dawdles, adopts ill-advised half-measures, or chooses to change the reference points that define a healthy stock and a sustainable fishing rate, we could be looking at further declines and perhaps even the sort of fishing that some of us remember—and try to forget—from back in the 1980s.
The good news is that people who matter seem to be concerned about where the stock is heading. On April 17, the top marine resource managers in three states, Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts, sent a letter urging prompt action to Jim Gilmore, ASMFC’s current Chairman.
That’s a good sign.
But the big question is what, exactly, ASMFC ought to do.
Probably the first thing to be said is that they ought to do something. Ever since Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan was adopted in 2014, there have been some voices on the Management Board who have complained that its terms are too restrictive, and that new, more permissive regulations should be put in place.
ASMFC’s policy on such matters is clear. It’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter states that
“It is the policy of the Commission that its [Interstate Fisheries Management Program] promote the conservation of Atlantic coastal fishery resources, be based on the best scientific information available, and provide adequate opportunity for public participation. [emphasis added]”
The Charter also states that
“Above all, [a fishery management plan] must include conservation and management measures that ensure the long-term biological health and productivity of fishery resources under management.”
To better achieve that objective, the Charter includes standards for its management plans, including one that that reads
“Conservation programs and management measures shall be designed to prevent overfishing and maintain over time, abundant, self-sustaining stocks of coastal fishery resources. In cases where stocks have become depleted as a result of overfishing and/or other causes, such programs shall be designed to rebuild, restore, and subsequently maintain such stocks so as to assure their sustained availability in fishable abundance on a long-term basis. [emphasis added]”
“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded in any year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.”
It also requires that
“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2.”
Section 2.6.2 allows the Management Board to set any rebuilding timeframe that it deems appropriate, so long as that timeframe does not exceed ten years.
The new benchmark stock assessment has found that the striped bass stock is both overfished and subject to overfishing. Thus, according to the policy and standards set forth in the Charter, along with the language of the fishery management plan, the Management Board’s course seems clear.
The problem is that, in the past, ASMFC has failed to live up to its own conservation policy and standards. And when the previous benchmark assessment came out in 2013, and found that fishing mortality was regularly exceeding the target, and that the female spawning stock biomass had fallen below its target and remained there for a few years, the Management Board ignored another directive included in Amendment 6, which states that
“If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2.”
This time, as the letter mentioned earlier suggests, it seems that state fishery managers are serious about fixing the striped bass’ problems. But we can never forget that states only get one vote on any management matter, and that a state fishery manager’s professional advice can be overruled by the other two members of a state delegation, who are generally political appointees with little or no background in fisheries science. Thus, despite positive signs, it’s not a given that the Management Board will do the right thing.
And, if they do take action, there is bound to be a lot of discussion about what that “right thing” will be.
Hopefully, most will agree on the basics, which are nothing more than the requirements set out by Amendment 6: Reduce fishing mortality to the target level within one year, and rebuild the stock within ten.
Neither of those things should be too hard to do. Ending overfishing is merely a matter of reducing landings, establishing commercial quotas, and recreational size limits, bag limits and very possibly seasons, calculated to return fishing mortality to the target level. And given that Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass managed to restore a collapsed stock within ten years, it would be hard to argue that a new addendum couldn’t restore the current stock to health, given that bass are still in far better shape today than they were in 1985.
What will be hard will be convincing all of the governors’ appointees and legislative appointees and/or their proxies that rebuilding and conserving the striped bass stock will be worth the short-term economic inconvenience that such actions will inevitably entail—and, more to the point, will be worth all of the political pressure that will be directed at them from folks who feel that their income is directly related to the number of dead bass that folks put on the dock.
But assuming that the Management Board gets over that initial hump, and moves on to considering specific management measures, here are some measures that ought to be considered.
The size limit, both on the coast and in Chesapeake Bay, needs to go up if we’re to end overfishing and rebuild the stock. We won’t know how much it needs to increase until the Technical Committee; makes their calculations, and throwing a number out prior to that is just taking a shot in the dark. But some sort of increase is inevitable.
If the Management Board wanted to hedge its bets and take a more risk-averse approach, it could borrow a strategy from Amendment 3, and establish size limits in Chesapeake Bay, and eventually on the coast, that increase each year in order to shield the strong 2015 year class from significant fishing mortality until the spawning stock is rebuilt. Even with such a limit in place, survivors of the big 2011 year class would provide anglers with some fish to harvest during the rebuilding process.
The coastal bag limit will, of necessity, remain unchanged, as one fish is already as low as it can go; however, managers should ask whether it would make sense to reduce Chesapeake Bay’s two-fish bag to one fish as well. As for seasons, the Management Board ought to seriously consider complete closures—yes, catch and release would be outlawed, too--at times and in places where water temperature, salinity or other physical conditions typically result in high levels of discard mortality.
To further reduce the number of fish that don’t survive release, circle hooks should be required in all bait fisheries likely to encounter striped bass.
To maximize the impact of such regulations, they should be required for all coastal states, with complimentary, but also consistent, rules adopted for Chesapeake Bay. Currently, ASMFC’s striped bass management plan embraces the concept of “conservation equivalency,” and allows states to adopt regulations different from those established by the plan, so long as such regulations provide the same benefit to the fish being managed. Yet such equivalency is too often theoretical; there has been little or no follow-up to assure that “equivalent” regulations actually meet their conservation goals.
“Management measures need to be measurable and achievable. Too often we do things that look good on paper but don’t meet the necessary conservation requirements.”
That’s a particular problem with overfished stocks such as striped bass. ASMFC’s Conservation Equivalency: Policy and Technical Guidance Document notes that
“During the development of a management document, the Plan Development Team (PDT) should recommend if conservation equivalency should be permitted for that species. The board should provide a specific determination if conservation equivalency is an approved option for the fishery management plan, since conservation equivalency may not be appropriate or necessary for all management programs. The PDT should consider stock status, stock structure, data availability, range of the species, socio-economic information, and the potential for more conservative management when stocks are overfished or overfishing is occurring when making a recommendation on conservation equivalency. [emphasis added]”
Keeping every state on the same regulatory page would allow data to be collected and analyzed on a coastwide basis, leading to more accurate harvest estimates and a better understanding of the efficacy of whatever regulations are ultimately adopted.
If conservation equivalency is permitted at all, it should be conditioned upon states being held accountable for their “equivalent” regulations. If they do not meet the mandated harvest reductions, whether expressed as a percentage, in fish or in pounds, they should be required to pay back such overage in the following year. States adopting such equivalent regulations might argue that state-level landings estimates are not sufficiently accurate to be used in such a manner, but if such estimates are deemed to be accurate enough to be used to calculate conservation equivalent measures, than there is little reason why they shouldn’t be deemed accurate enough to be used to calculate accountability measures, too.
For states that stick with the management measures specified in the management plan, and don’t seek conservation equivalency, accountability measures should be imposed on a “fleet-wide” basis. That is, an individual state, which adopted the coastwide management measures approved by ASMFC, would not be held accountable if such state failed to meet the mandated harvest reduction in any given year. However, if the entire coast, or all of Chesapeake Bay, failed to achieve the required reduction, regulations would have to be tightened to better assure success in the following year.
Such a provision would help to avoid a repeat of the situation that occurred after the adoption of Addendum IV, when anglers in Chesapeake Bay, who were supposed to reduce their landings by 20.5% (compared to landings in 2012), actually increased their landings substantially, continue to harvest fish at much higher levels that the addendum contemplated, and have not been held accountable at all.
It should be noted that such accountability measures would not be completely foreign to the ASMFC, nor to its striped bass management program, although they would represent a new approach to recreational striped bass management. Accountability has long been imposed on the commercial striped bass fishery, where states are required to pay back any overages in the following year.
Also, given that the striped bass stock is overfished and subject to overfishing, it makes little sense to transfer quota between the recreational and commercial sectors in order to increase a state’s landings. For example, in New Jersey, which has eliminated its commercial fishery, anglers are allowed to keep a third striped bass, at least 24 but less than 28 inches long, after September 1, in addition to the state’s two-fish “conservation equivalent” bag limit. That third fish comes out of New Jersey’s unused commercial quota, and allows Garden State anglers to harvest immature female striped bass throughout the fall run—hardly the best situation when managers are trying to rebuild the stock.
Finally, the Management Board should seriously consider whether management measures that have only a 50% chance of success—and an equal likelihood of failure—are appropriate when trying to end overfishing and rebuild the overfished striped bass stock. Regulations that have a higher chance of success will pinch a bit more in the short term, but are more likely to avoid even greater pain later on.
A 50% chance of failure is just too high.
It’s unlikely that many fishery managers would risk all of their personal assets in a business venture that has a 50-50 chance of going bankrupt. They shouldn’t be willing to accept more risk on a management venture that has a 50-50 chance of squandering a public resource.
The striped bass is arguably the most important recreational fishery on the East Coast. It is an important, and very valuable asset.
We can only hope that fishery managers treat that public asset with as much care as they would treat an asset of their own.