Sunday, June 23, 2019
TIME TO STAND UP FOR STRIPED BASS
On the morning of Thursday, August 8, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will meet to decide the fate of the striper.
Three topics are on the agenda: "Consider Approval of Draft Addendum VI for Public Comment", "Consider Postponed Motion from the April 2019 Meeting", and "Review and Consider Approval of February 2019 Fishery Management Plan Review and State Compliance Reports". All are important matters, but it is the first two items that will decide the fish’s foreseeable future.
As everyone should know by now, the most recent benchmarkstock assessment, completed late last year, found that the striped bass stockis both overfished and subject to overfishing. Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass requires that, under such circumstances,
“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”
“the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [no more than ten years].”
At its May meeting, the Management Board began the process of reducing fishing mortality, by instructing the Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team to put together a draft addendum to the management plan that would have a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality by 17%, the minimum amount needed to return fishing mortality to the target level. The proposed draft addendum would consider measures such as a 35-inch minimum size on the coast, a 2-inch increase in the size limit in Chesapeake Bay, a slot limit with a 40-inch maximum size, seasons, the mandatory use of circle hooks when bait fishing and reductions in commercial landings.
What the proposed draft addendum doesn’t seem to do is include provisions that would rebuild the stock within 10 years, as required by the current management plan.
Unfortunately, because the ASMFC is not legally required to rebuild overfished stocks, and is not legally accountable for its management actions, it can ignore such explicit provisions of its management plans with seeming impunity.
Thus, anglers were left with a comment by an Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee member, who said at the May Management Board meeting that, if fishing mortality was reduced to target, biomass would “theoretically” increase to target at some point, although the timeframe for that to happen was not clear.
The benchmark stock assessment did make it clear that even with the strong 2011 and 2015 year classes in the population, merely ending overfishing would probably leave the stock still overfished in the year 2023.
However, it is not even certain that the Management Board will act to reduce fishing mortality to the target level. Ever since the Management Board adopted Addendum IV to the management plan in 2014, which was intended to reduce fishing mortality by 25%, the State of Maryland, in particular, has been fiercely opposed to further reductions in landings, and has made several efforts to increase the striped bass kill. Representatives from New Jersey and Delaware have also expressed opposition to needed management measures.
In addition, there have been some people in other states, often associated with the for-hire fishery, who are opposing any reduction in landings. Here in New York, much of that opposition is taking the form of unfounded challenges to the benchmark stock assessment, based on casual observations of striped bass offshore, that claim that biologists failed to consider large numbers of fish that remain offshore, where they cannot be legally fished. Although even a cursory reading of the peer-reviewed stock assessment would show that such claims are invalid, opponents of effective striped bass management have been loud and persistent enough to get the ear of one local congressman, who has taken up their cause.
Thus, anglers concerned with the striped bass’ future would do well to contact their states’ representatives to the ASMFC who can be found on the ASMFC’s web page (go to tab “About Us” and then click on “Commissioners”), and tell them that fishing mortality must be returned to target in 2020, as the current management plan requires.
This isn’t something that responsible anglers should ignore, because we can be sure that those opposed to striped bass conservation will be contacting their representatives early and often.
And anglers shouldn’t stop there. They should also tell their ASMFC representatives that they expect the Management Board to stay true to their word, and rebuild the striped bass stock to target within 10 years, as they promised to do when they adopted Amendment 6 to the management plan.
During the Amendment 6 debate, which dragged out for years, there were many striped bass fishermen who thought that the amendment should be more restrictive, to allow more big female bass to survive and create a resilient spawning stock that will help assure the future of the bass population should it experience multiple years of poor spawning success, as seems to occur from time to time.
The Management Board told those anglers not to worry, because there were management triggers in the Amendment that would require remedial action should the stock run into problems. Back in 2011, when the Management Board was first faced with a stock assessment update informing them that the stock would be overfished by 2017, they took no action, because a management trigger hadn’t been tripped—yet—a rationale that certainly implied that action would be taken once such trigger was tripped.
Now, the overfishing trigger has been activated, and the Management Board’s duty—as set out in Amendment 6—is crystal clear.
Whether the Management Board will demonstrate the integrity and moral courage to step up and do their duty is not clear at all.
Thus, anglers need to encourage them to do the right thing, and take action to rebuild the stock within the 10-year timeframe, as they have previously promised that they would do. Again, there will certainly be other folks out there telling them to ignore the clear language of Amendment 6, and leave the rebuilding issue alone.
And there are people out there—and on the Management Board—who want to do far worse than that, and take actions that would render any Management Board effort to rebuild the stock or reduce fishing mortality largely irrelevant in the long term.
That’s where the second item on the August meeting agenda kicks in. The Management Board will consider a postponed motion that reads
“Move to initiate an Addendum 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.”
Not surprisingly, the motion was made by Michael Luisi of Maryland, and seconded by John Clark of Delaware. Both persons are long-time advocates for a bigger striped bass kill, and have been determined opponents of needed conservation measures. Their push for a new amendment is extremely significant, for as Max Appleman, the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, noted at the February Management Board meeting,
“Almost everything is covered in the addendum process, except for management objectives and goals.”
So by pushing for an amendment, it’s pretty clear that folks such as Clark and Luisi are hoping to change the most basic parameters of the management plan: the goals and objectives of the entire striped bass management effort.
What do the current goals and objectives look like? Actually,
they look pretty good.
The management plan’s current goal 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 goal makes a lot of sense. It is focused on maintaining a healthy spawning stock, with an age structure adequate to include a number of the older, larger female fish that, on an individual basis, produce far more, as well as larger and healthier, eggs than do younger females.
That’s a critical consideration in a fish like striped bass, that tend to depend on occasional, large year classes to maintain their abundance.
If fishing mortality is increased, or the target and threshold biomass is reduced, the stock would lose many of the large female fish, and be more dependent on younger females.
That may work for a while, when big year classes occur, but when there are a number of consecutive years of poor recruitment, as happened in the late 1970s/early 1980s and happened again between 2005 and 2010, there may not be enough young fish recruiting into the spawning stock to replace the fish being removed. In such a situation, when there aren't enough young fish, and the stock no longer has a broad age structure that includes older females, the risk of sharp stock decline, and perhaps even collapse, is greatly increased.
Having seen the bass stock collapse once in my life, I’m in no hurry to see such a thing happen again.
On the other hand, by lowering the biomass target and allowing a bigger kill, people who make money from killing striped bass will see their income increase in the short term.
While it’s true that you can’t catch fish that aren’t there, both commercial striped bass fishermen and for-hire operators have a history of focusing on what they can catch today, and not spending very much time worrying about whether there will be any fish for them to catch tomorrow. To them, amending the goal of the plan to allow a bigger kill sounds like a good idea.
“Manage fishing mortality to maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long-term abundance of striped bass population,”
“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,”
will also be in the crosshairs should a new amendment be initiated.
Changing those objectives could only hurt the bass population in the long term.
Thus, when contacting your ASMFC representatives, it is of critical importance that you convey the message that the motion to begin an amendment must not pass.
Again, you can be certain that the folks who want to kill more fish will be getting the word out, contacting everyone they know in an effort to defeat conservation measures and amend the plan.
They will say that there are plenty of fish out in federal waters, and that the assessment is wrong. But they won’t be able to explain why no one but them can find those offshore striped bass.
They will argue that striped bass biomass has never achieved the target level. But they will fail to mention that striped bass fishing mortality has never been reduced to the target, either.
They will say that higher landings will provide them with higher incomes today. But they will not mention tomorrow.
It is thus incumbent upon everyone who cares about the striped bass to contact their three ASMFC representatives now, and again just before the August meeting, and insist that they reduce fishing mortality, promptly rebuild the biomass, and maintain goals and objectives that will best assure that the striped bass stock remains healthy not just today, but in the long term as well.