Thursday, May 2, 2019
THIS WEEK'S ASMFC MEETING: HOW DID THE STRIPED BASS MAKE OUT?
Last Tuesday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board held a meeting, where it planned to discuss its response to the benchmark stock assessment’s finding that that theAtlantic striped bass stock is both overfished and experiencing overfishing.
So what happened?
It may be too early to say.
There were certainly some good moments.
The Technical Committee advised the Management Board that in order to have a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality to the target level, the coastal size limit would have to increase from 28 to 35 inches, Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay size limit would have to increase from 19 inches to 21, and Virginia’s Chesapeake limit would have to go up from 20 to 22 inches. Having received that information, the Management Board moved forward with a new addendum intended to end overfishing.
In a somewhat related management action, and in a very lopsided vote, it also agreed to send a letter to NOAA Fisheries advising it to keep the so-called “transit zone,” an area of federal waters north and west of Block Island, closed to all striped bass fishing.
The Management Board also tasked the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee with preparing a sample set of management measures that would rebuild the striped bass stock to target levels within 10 years, as required by the current striped bass management plan. However, the Management Board did not specify that any such rebuilding measures be included in the draft addendum that’s being prepared.
Even so, the fact that the Management Board is even talking about rebuilding puts us in a better place than we were in five years ago, when the last addendum was being drafted and ASMFC staff decided that it didn’t want to address the uncertainty inherent in a set rebuilding timeline.
As things stand now, the draft addendum, which will be prepared by the Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team and presented to the Management Board for possible amendment, at the August meeting, will conform to the following motion, which was initially made by Douglas Grout, a state fishery manager from New Hampshire, and seconded by Dr. Justin Davis, who represents the Fisheries Division of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and later amended by the Management Board to add the final provision
“Move to initiate an addendum to address the overfishing status of striped bass and implement measures to reduce [the fishing mortality rate] back to the [fishing mortality rate] target. Task [Plan Development Team] to develop options that would reduce [the fishing mortality rate] to the target that would include:
· Minimum fish size for the coast and a minimum fish size for Chesapeake Bay.
· Slot limit that would prohibit harvest of fish over 40 inches.
· Mandatory use of circle hooks when fishing with bait coastwide to reduce discard mortality.
· A provision that states could use seasonal closures in conservation equivalency proposals.
· Apply needed reductions equally to both commercial and recreational sectors.
· Apply needed reductions proportionally based on total removals in 2017 to both commercial and recreational sectors.”
I was a little surprised to see that the motion passed without objection—although, as I’ll explain later on, maybe that fact is actually a little less surprising than it initially appears, as some folks had other plans for undercutting striped bass conservation.
But just on its face, what does the motion mean?
The first and most obvious meaning is that it intends to address only “the overfishing status of striped bass” and completely ignores the language in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which states 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 to the target level within [10 years], [emphasis added],
even though Max Appelmann, the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, presented the Management Board with a slide presentation that very explicitly spelled out that requirement.
So the only link between rebuilding and the pending addendum came in a comment from a Technical Committee member, who said that if fishing mortality was reduced to or below the target rate, the stock would “theoretically” rebuild to the target biomass at some undetermined point in the future.
Of course, we heard something similar five years ago, too, and that didn’t work out very well.
The problem with depending on only one reference point—fishing mortality—to cure the ills besetting the stock, without the assistance of rebuilding timelines, annual catch limits, accountability measures and such, is that fishing mortality is one of the hardest things to predict. While it does rely, to some extent, on the regulations in place, it also depends upon other factors, such as weather and angling effort, with the latter, in turn, impacted by such things as the availability of both striped bass and other, alternative species. Technical Committee representatives freely admitted that fishermen’s behavior, and their response to new regulations, is something that they can’t easily predict.
Thus, the lack of a rebuilding provision in the pending addendum is troubling, although once the Technical Committee reports back on what such rebuilding would require, it’s possible—although I won’t be holding my breath—that such provision could be added in August, before the addendum is released for public comment.
But at least the overfishing will, hopefully, be addressed.
Size limits are the obvious way to do that, so I found the addition of the slot limit provision interesting. Historically, striped bass have been managed only through a minimum size, although a handful of states have adopted slot limits from time to time. However, the purpose of such slots has typically been to increase the number of fish killed, not to reduce fishing mortality. A former Maine slot limit, instituted in the mid-1990s, was intended to allow anglers to harvest fish from the big 1993 year class before they matured into the coastal 28” limit; because of its negative conservation impact, such slot resulted in Maine’s bag limit to be cut from two fish to one, so it was hardly a conservation measure.
Thus, it will be interesting to see what impact a slot with a 40-inch top end would have. Here in New York, I’ve heard a fair amount of support for a slot, with numbers like 28-32 inches, 28-34, 32-36 and similar combinations—which had no hard data behind them—suggested by anglers.
If the low end any slot size adopted was no less than 28 inches, such slot shouldn’t increase the number of immature fish killed, while hopefully providing some protection for the largest, most important spawning females. However, it would also concentrate fishing pressure on a narrow portion of the bass population—which might or might not be a detriment, given how dependent striped bass are on intermittent large year classes—and, given that larger fish can be difficult to release, might increase the percentage of released bass that don’t survive the experience.
But that’s something for the Technical Committee to figure out. If a slot makes biological sense—and at this point, we’re not sure whether or not it will—then it makes management sense as well.
After that, we start getting to the less pleasant aspects of the motion, based on comments that arose after people, instead of standing together for the striped bass, tried to escape their share of the conservation burden, and place it on other folks’ shoulders.
Questions and comments made early in the session hinted that was coming, but it wasn’t until Michael Luisi, Maryland’s state fishery manager, asked whether it would be possible to remove commercial fishery measures from the pending addendum, and so place all of the rebuilding burden on anglers’ shoulders, that the effort really broke into the open.
Once the idea was on the table, it was quickly pounced on by Russel Dize, a commercial fisherman who serves as Maryland’s Governor’s Appointee, who complained that commercial fishermen would be “punished” for “doing a good job” and staying within their quota if they, and not just recreational fishermen, were forced to reduce landings.
In a way, Dize’s had a point. After harvest reductions were required by a 2014 addendum, Maryland's commercial fishermen successfully cut landings, while Maryland's anglers didn’t reduce fishing mortality at all, and actually substantially increased their landings. So it's easy to understand why Dize might think that the folks who overfished for the past five years ought to make the required reductions now, while those who lived up to their responsibilities before should be left alone. But if you took that logic to its ultimate conclusion, coastal anglers also made more than their required reductions, and shouldn't be forced to atone for Maryland anglers' sins.
This fight debate shouldn't see commercial fishermen pitted against recreational fishermen, it should see all fishermen working together for the striped bass.
But even within the recreational community, some members of the Management Board sought to push rebuilding obligations off onto others.
Adam Nowalsky, a New Jersey charter boat captain, complained that harvest reductions wouldn’t have any impact at all on anglers who generally release their bass, but that anglers who want to kill their fish—and boats (such as his, though he didn’t exactly say that) who might carry such anglers—would take a disproportionate hit from such cuts.
It was a sort of “duh!” moment—after all, harvest restrictions will only impact people who harvest fish, and not those who already release them—but his comments did underline the fact that some members of the relatively small for-hire fleet, which accounted for only about 1.75% ofall directed recreational striped bass trips during the five years between 2014and 2018, want to avoid having more restrictive regulations placed on their sector, so that they could keep on producing dead bass for their customers.
Thus, in the end, the motion contained two differently worded, but perhaps not very different, proposals on allocating responsibility for harvest reductions.
One would allocate reductions “equally,” the other “proportionately.”
It’s easy to argue that they mean the same thing, for if both sectors were subject to an “equal” 17% landings reduction, the outcome of such reduction would end up with the recreational sector, which accounts for 90% of the fishing mortality, being responsible for 90% of the fish NOT killed as a result of the harvest cuts, with the commercial sector accounting for the remaining 10%. That is also very “proportional.”
No split of the recreational reductions was proposed in the final motion, although something still could pop up in August.
So, with respect to the pending addendum, the meeting’s outcome was far from perfect, but it certainly could have been worse.
Unfortunately, there was another motion made at the meeting that, if passed, could render all of the good work meaningless.
It was made by Michael Luisi, who has been working to undercut striped bass conservation efforts for years, in order to increase Maryland fishermen’s kill. The motion read
“Move to initiate an Amendment to the Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan to address the needed consideration for change on the issues of fishery goals and objectives, empirical/biological/spatial reference points, management triggers, rebuilding biomass, and area-specific management. Work on this amendment will begin upon the completion of the previously discussed addendum to the management plan.”
No vote was taken on that motion; that was deferred until the August. Hopefully, the motion will die then and there. But if it doesn’t, all of the work done to date could be in vain.
Early in this week’s meeting, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan Coordinator made it clear that most of the aspects of striped bass management—reference points, size limits, management triggers, etc.—could be accomplished in the pending addendum. The only thing that would require an amendment—a far more complex and time-consuming document—would be changing the goals and objectives of the plan.
And what are those goals and objectives? Amendment 6 lays them out.
“The Goal of Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass is:
‘To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fishery management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock; and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.’”
That sounds like a very sensible goal. Changing it could easily lead to increased harvest levels, which would reduce the number of larger, more fecund females in the spawning stock. That's a risky course, for reducing the number of older fish in the spawning stock makes the population more dependent on the recruitment of newly-mature bass, and so also makes the stock more vulnerable to long periods of below-average recruitment. And those periods come more often that some may realize, with the last spanning the years between the large 2003 and 2011 year classes; a new drought could begin at any time.
But managing a stock that way also allows a bigger kill, and Maryland has been trying to increase the striped bass kill since at least 2016.
As far as the Objectives go, Amendment 6 says,
“In support of this goal, the following objectives are recommended for Amendment 6:
· Manage striped bass fisheries under a control rule designed to maintain stock size at or above the target female spawning stock biomass level and a level of fishing mortality at or below the target exploitation rate.
· Manage fishing mortality to maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long-term abundance of striped bass populations.
· Provide a management plan that strives, to the extent practical, to maintain coastwide consistency of implemented measures, while allowing the States defined flexibility to implement alternative strategies that accomplish the objectives of this FMP.
· Foster quality and economically viable recreational, for-hire, and commercial fisheries.
· Maximize cost effectiveness of current information gathering and prioritize state obligations in order to minimize costs of monitoring and management.
· Adopt a long-term management regime that minimizes or eliminates the need to make annual changes or modifications to management measures.
· Establish a fishing mortality target that will result in a net increase in the abundance (pounds) of age 15 and older striped bass in the population, relative to the 2000 estimate.”
Again, they all seem to be prudent and reasonable objectives—except, perhaps, for the one that seeks to minimize changes to management measures, a philosophy hich probably contributed to the Management Board’s failure to timely respond to the sharp decline in striped bass abundance over the past decades.
Again, changing some of those Objectives, to no longer require a spawning stock structure that better assure's the striped bass population's long-term health, and to maintain older fish in the spawning stock, would allow a bigger kill, but create greater risk in exchange.
Making such changes would be unwise, but wisdom doesn't always reign at ASMFC.
Thus, what happened at Tuesday's meeting--even the good things--may, in the long run, be far less important than what happens in August, and beyond.
Those concerned with the striped bass' future probably have their toughest fight ahead of them.
They need to convince the Management Board to stay the course and reduce fishing mortality to target levels next year, and do it in a way that holds everyone responsible for their share of the striper's recovery.
Along with that task, they should also convince the Management Board that merely ending overfishing in the coming year is not good enough; a healthy striped bass fishery requires a promptly rebuilt striped bass stock.
But those are relatively short-term goals. In order to adequately conserve the striped bass in the long term, the Management Board must vote down the motion to create a new amendment, that could undercut the structure of the spawning stock, and risk a future collapse.
Because increasing the risk of a stock collapse is a risk that no one ought to be willing to take.