Thursday, May 30, 2019
STRIPED BASS IN THE EEZ
The debate over striped bass fishing in federal waters (often referred to as the “Exclusive Economic Zone,” or “EEZ,” has been going on for a very long time.
The EEZ was closed to bass fishing in 1990, as part of a suite of state and federal management actions intended to help rebuild the Atlantic migratory striped bass stock after it had collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But ever since the stock was declared rebuilt in 1995, there have been repeated efforts to restore the offshore fishery.
In November 1995, Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ) introduced H.R. 2655, the ironically-named “Atlantic Striped Bass Preservation Act,” which would have encouraged the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to prepare a fishery management plan that would permit, and govern, striped bass fishing in federal waters. Hearings on the bill were held, but it ultimately died a well-deserved death in committee.
Low-level rumblings continued after that, but nothing much happened until 2003, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which recommended that the Secretary of Commerce consider reopening the EEZ to striped bass fishing. In response to such recommendation, the National Marine Fisheries Service held a series of hearings on the issue, but after extensive opposition from anglers up and down the coast, decided in 2006 to keep the closure in place.
In 2007, President George H. W. Bush signed an executive order prohibiting commercial striped bass fishing in the EEZ, a move which foreclosed any possible agency action to open such fishery.
However, the executive order didn’t preclude a possible opening of the recreational fishery, and some efforts to do just that continued. New York’s 1st Congressional District, which includes Montauk and the rest of the East End of Long Island, has been a particular hot spot for such attempts. Both Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY 1CD) and his successor, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY 1CD) have introduced a number of ultimately unsuccessful bills to accomplish that goal.
While Rep. Zeldin’s bills to open the EEZ failed to pass both houses of Congress, he did succeed in getting language into the omnibus budget bill that said
“NOAA, in conjunction with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is directed to consider lifting the ban on striped bass in the Block Island Transit Zone,”
which effectively addressed the concerns of Rep. Zeldin’s East End constituents. However, additional language appeared in the same budget bill that potentially had far greater impact, which read
“The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is completing a new stock assessment of Atlantic Striped Bass in 2018. After this assessment is complete, the Secretary of Commerce is directed to use this assessment to review the Federal moratorium on Atlantic Striped Bass.”
Since the budget bill became law, ASMFC’s new benchmark striped bass stock assessment found that the stock is both overfished and subject to overfishing. In response to that finding, ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board recommended, at its April 30 meeting, that the EEZ remain closed.
In a rational world, those events should have terminated the discussion for a while, but in the world of fisheries management, they only intensified the debate.
The question of striped bass fishing in the EEZ has also become entwined with the argument, being pushed hard by those who don’t want to see striped bass harvest further reduced, that the benchmark assessment is wrong, and striped bass aren’t overfished, because biologists are discounting the alleged presence of striped bass in the EEZ.
Rep. Zeldin probably took that argument to an extreme in a recent press release, in which he declared that
“the ASMFC used flawed data that measures the Atlantic Striped Bass stock based on the entire eastern seaboard, yet failed to account for Atlantic Striped Bass outside of the 3-mile fishing area, assuming fish abide by arbitrary bureaucratic boundaries. Alternative data that shows the Striped Bass stock is in a better place outside the 3-mile limit was not only thrown out by the Commission, but the Commission also moved to no longer provide data collection in those waters, virtually assuring that any future decision regarding the Striped Bass fishery will be based on flawed data in perpetuity.”
The only problem with such statement, and with similar statements made by others, is that it doesn’t reflect reality. Like the “alternative data” is appears to rely on, it is composed more of wishful thinking than objective fact.
Nowhere does the assessment suggest that offshore fish were ignored. The assessment’s first term of reference required the assessors to
“Investigate all fisheries independent and dependent data sets, including life history, indices of abundance, and tagging data. Discuss strengths and weaknesses of the data sources. [emphasis added]”
The injunction to examine “all data sets,” along with the striped bass’ life history seems broad enough to include any bass that sojourned in the EEZ, particularly considering the assessment’s statement that
“Striped bass are not usually found more than 6 to 8 km offshore, however Kneebone et al., using acoustic telemetry, found that adult fish that aggregate on Stellwagen Bank, located in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and beyond the 12-nautical mile territorial sea, move inshore as part of their normal migratory and feeding behavior. Additionally, Fishery-independent data…suggests striped bass distribution on their overwintering grounds in December through February has changed significantly since the mid-2000s. The migratory portion of the stocks has been well offshore in the EEZ (>3 miles), requiring travel as far as 25 nm offshore of Chesapeake Bay to locate fish to tag.”
Having said that, treating striped bass in the EEZ as separate from bass in state waters is, from the start, a flawed approach. Striped bass can sometimes be found feeding, and perhaps migrating, in federal waters. There are certain areas in the EEZ that seasonally host striped bass, and the fish winter offshore before they move into spawning areas in the spring. But the bass that can sometimes be found offshore and the bass that spawn and feed inshore are part of the same population of fish; there is no difference between them.
As the stock assessment notes, the bass on Stellwagen Bank “move inshore as part of their normal migratory and feeding behavior.” They do not constitute a separate, allegedly unaccounted-for population. The same is true of bass found elsewhere in the EEZ.
Of course, that doesn’t prevent the dockside observers, with a personal interest in keeping harvest levels high, from trying to convince others that the patterns of fish abundance and movement have changed, or that warm water is pushing fish north.
On a micro level, they might even be right, for local conditions often cause bass to change feeding and movement patterns.
But on a macro level, with respect to the coastwide migration, such change isn’t possible, as the life history of the striped
bass ties the fish to particular spawning rivers where a combination of water temperature, salinity and other factors meet their particular biological needs. As the stock assessment tells us,
“Striped bass spawning areas are characteristically turbid and fresh, with significant current velocities due to normal fluvial transport or tidal action…
“Striped bass spawn at temperatures between 10 and 23oC, but seldom at temperatures below 13 to 14oC. Peak spawning activity occurs at about 18oC and declines rapidly thereafter…
“Newly hatched bass larvae remain in fresh or slightly brackish water until they are about 12 to 15 mm long. At that time, they move in small schools toward shallow protected shorelines, where they remain until fall. Over the winter, the young concentrate in deep water of rivers. Those nursery grounds appear to include that part of the estuarine zone with salinities less than 3.2o/oo.”
That’s important, because there just aren’t that many places along the coast where bass can successfully spawn. They certainly can’t spawn offshore, which means that any fish that spend part of their time in the EEZ still have to come inshore to reproduce.
Thus, a recent decline in the number of fish captured in the Maryland Spawning Stock Survey or the Chesapeake Bay Multispecies Monitoring and Assessment Program can’t simply be written off by saying that the bass no longer enter the Bay, but are now in the EEZ, that their patterns of abundance have changed, or that they are now moving northward. The stock assessment notes that
“The Chesapeake Bay stock of striped bass is widely regarded as the largest of the four major spawning stocks…
“Recent tag-recovery studies in the Rappahannock River and upper Chesapeake Bay show that larger and older (age 7+) female striped bass, after spawning, move more extensively along the Atlantic coast than stripers from the Hudson River stock. Tag recoveries of Chesapeake stripers from July through November have occurred as far south as Virginia and as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada. Like the Hudson River stock, nearly all recaptures of mature female striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay stock occur during winter (December and February) off Virginia and North Carolina.”
If the Chesapeake Bay spawning surveys start turning up fewer fish, that means that the stock is going to be on a downturn coastwide. There will be fewer bass off New England, fewer off the Mid-Atlantic, and fewer wintering offshore. While bass might be locally abundant in a few places, such local abundance represents anomalies that do not accurately reflect the overall health of the stock.
And to be abundant, in the EEZ or anywhere else, fish have to come from somewhere. In the case of striped bass, that “somewhere” is primarily Chesapeake Bay, with an assist from the Hudson and Delaware.
The juvenile bass survey figures coming out of the Chesapeake tell the real story.
Over the past 65 years, the average for Maryland juvenile striped bass survey was 11.8 fish per sample. For the decade 2004-2013, which produced most of the legal fish swimming on the coast today, recruitment was below that average in seven out of the ten years. While there was a very strong year class in 2011, 2012 saw the lowest juvenile index ever recorded, even lower than those that were seen during the stock collapse. We can’t have a healthy striped bass population today if recruitment was below average a decade ago.
The assessment, not surprisingly, concurs. A presentation made at the April 30 Management Board meeting clearly showed that, despite the strong 2011 and 2015 year classes, absent a meaningful harvest reduction, the stock will remain overfished five years from now.
Thus, based on the data, and not the “alternative facts” that some choose to rely on, everyone needs to address reality. The striped bass stock is in some trouble. To return it to some semblance of health, fishing mortality needs to be cut, and biomass must be increased.
Right now, opening the EEZ would be a bad idea, for as the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee concluded five years ago, when the stock was, and was believed to be, healthier than it is today
“Opening any fishery in the EEZ would not decrease fishing mortality at a time when current F estimates are above its target [and now threshold] level”;
“Tagging data indicate larger females tend to aggregate in the EEZ”;
“It is impossible for the [Technical Committee] to predict whether opening the EEZ will result in a shift or an increase in fishing effort, but any fishing that occurs in the EEZ will result in a source of mortality that is currently minimized by the prohibition.”
Now is the time for everyone to stop thinking about what they think they need, and to start concentrating on what the bass needs.
Specious arguments won't get the job done. In the end, it won't make any difference who wins the debate about size limits, seasons, or opening the EEZ.
You can't catch fish that aren't there.
If the bass loses, we’re all losers, too.