Friday, August 9, 2019

SMALL SIGNS OF HOPE AT ASMFC'S STRIPED BASS MEETING


Yesterday, I sat in on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board meeting, to see how they would address ending overfishing and rebuilding the stock.

I didn’t have high hopes.  There were enough rumors, comments and bits of hard information going around to suggest that that little was going to be done to return the bass stock to health, and that some state representatives, including those from Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware, would be pushing for measures that were likely to do real harm to the stock in the long run.

Fortunately, things turned out better than that.

The primary goal of the meeting was to discuss and approve a draft of Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, and release that draft for public comment.  The addendum is badly needed, as striped bass are both overfished and subject to overfishing, and the addendum is intended to end fishing mortality and reduce it to or below the target mortality rate.

Right now, fishery managers believe that in order to achieve that goal, overall fishing mortality will have to be reduced by 18 percent.  Such level of reduction only has a 50% probability of achieving that goal, which is cutting things a bit close, given the amount of uncertainty that is always inherent in even the best fisheries data. Usually, such an indifferent chance of success receives little attention, but that wasn’t the case today.

Nearly as soon as the meeting opened, Robert O’Reilly, a Virginia fisheries manager, asked why the standard was set so low, and why something higher—perhaps a 75% probability of success, wasn’t also considered.  The answer—that the 50% probability of success was set by a Management Board motion last May—was one of those responses that is both completely correct and completely unsatisfying at the same time, for it failed to answer the question of why the Management Board settled for so low a figure in the first place.

Mostly, it seemed, they did it out of habit, because that’s the standard that they generally use.

Given the importance of getting some sort of fishing mortality reduction in place for the 2020 season, it turned out to be too late in the process to suggest new measures that would have a higher probability of reducing such mortality to the target level. 

While that may disappoint a lot of concerned striped bass anglers who petitioned their ASMFC representatives to up the odds for a successful reduction, it’s important to note that Mr. O’Reilly specifically mentioned the number of letters that he received from stakeholders concerned with the probability issue. 

In fact, various Management Board members made reference to the letters that they received on various issues a number of times throughout the meeting, so don’t doubt that we are being heard.  However, this time, we made our big push a little too late in the process.  If we had made the same comments in May, we might have had a real chance to shift the outcome.

So we need to begin earlier next time.

Max Appelman, the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, also cast some additional light on the probability-of-success issue when he informed the Management Board that ASMFC is working on a risk policy document that will hopefully provide a little more structure to the discussion.  We should see a copy of that document fairly soon.

Probability issues aside, the draft Addendum VI provides a reasonable approach to addressing the overfishing issue.  The problem with the draft addendum is that it complexly ignores the management plan’s requirement that the overfished stock be rebuilt within ten years. 

But that failure, too, was challenged by a number of Management Board members, most particularly Andy Shiels, the proxy for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, who read a section of Amendment 6 to the management plan which requires that, when the stock becomes overfished, the board “must” adopt a plan to rebuild it within the specified time.

Toward the end of the meeting, Mr. Shiels emphasized his displeasure with the lack of a rebuilding plan, saying

“We’re only going out to the public with half of the story,”
and expressed his belief that, in putting out an addendum that didn’t include a rebuilding plan, the board was violating the provisions of Amendment 6.

Again, it’s too bad that such discussion didn’t happen at the May meeting, when there would have been a chance to get rebuilding measures into the draft addendum.  As it was, the Management Board was unable to add measures to rebuild the stock within ten years to draft Addendum VI, for if they instructed the Plan Development Team to do so this late in the game, it would have been just about impossible to get any harvest reductions in place for the 2020 season.

However, Mr. Appelman did note, in his initial comments to the Management Board, that harvest reductions beyond those included in the draft addendum would probably be necessary to meet the ten-year rebuilding deadline.  

Throughout the course of the meeting, he reminded the Management Board of their obligation to rebuild the stock within ten years, and reminded them that the clock on that ten-year deadline began running when the board received the final version of the stock assessment in May.

His insistence on reminding the Management Board of their obligation to rebuild the stock within ten years stands in a clear and welcome contrast to his predecessor, who actively discouraged the Management Board from meeting that obligation, and beginning a ten-year rebuilding plan, at the August Management Board meeting five years ago.

Even without a specific rebuilding plan, biologists working with ASMFC believe that, if the fishing mortality rate is successfully reduced to the target, and then maintained at that level, the female spawning stock biomass will begin to increase, and should reach target levels in about 13 years.  Thus, when a rebuilding plan is finally adopted, the rebuilding task will, hopefully, already be partially completed.

Of course, there is a lot of uncertainty in that 13-year prediction.  A few big year classes—if they’re allowed to mature—could see recovery occur a bit sooner, while consecutive years of poor recruitment could prevent any recovery at all, and perhaps even lead to further decline.  That’s what happened after the last management changes in 2014, when the previous fishery management plan coordinator assured the Management Board that the population would begin trending upward, even without a rebuilding plan, when in reality, it kept going down.

Which, in the end, is why the Management Board needs to adopt a formal rebuilding plan, and not just depend on theoretical trends.  Progress needs to be measured against defined milestones, and management measures can be amended if the recovery veers off course.  

Trying to rebuild a stock without a rebuilding plan is like running a boat into a strange harbor, at night, without the benefit of a good chart:  You might miss the rocks and the mudflats, and make it safely into the port.  But then again, you might not. 

And you don’t learn of any unseen hazards that might be lurking out there until you crash.

Some Management Board members clearly believed that the best way to rebuild the stock was by initiating a comprehensive amendment, that would bring real changes to the overall management regime.

Certainly, it could be done that way. 

But the problem of initiating a new amendment is that everything will be on the table.  It is no secret that one of the most ardent supporters of initiating an amendment process has been Michael Luisi, a fishery director from Maryland, who has repeatedly expressed his desire to lower the biomass reference points to allow higher annual landings.  Various comments made over the past year or two suggest that both New Jersey and Delaware would support such an action.

That certainly wouldn’t do the bass any good. 

At the same time, a number of New England fishery managers are also supporting a new amendment but not because they want to kill more striped bass.  Instead, they want to offer the bass more protection, and improve the science underlying management decisions.  Richard White, the Governor’s Appointee from New Hampshire, stated outright that he wanted to initiate a new amendment that would be more conservative than the current Amendment 6.

That was obviously encouraging.

Still, the amendment process is going to be a minefield for all concerned, including the bass, and will provide a lot of chances for things to go off the rails.  Whether any new amendment will emphasize greater harvest, more conservative management or, like the current Amendment 6, lie somewhere in between will probably be decided in a fairly close vote.  

Thus, it was probably good that, by a vote of 11 to 5, the Management Board decided to postpone any consideration of a new amendment until May 2020, a date that will give everyone a chance to consider all of the possible implications of initiating such an action.

That was good news, as was the fact that, after much debate, the Management Board agreed to send the draft Addendum IV out for public comment with only minor amendments.

Those were the formal actions taken at the meeting, but it was some of the discussions that, for the most part, aren’t reflected in actual votes that may have provided the most hope for the future.


Conservation equivalency can be controversial.  While it makes sense when there are biological reasons for divergent regulations along different parts of the coast (e.g., summer flounder off North Carolina tend to run smaller than those off New York, as bigger fish migrate to the north and east), some states habitually abuse it in an effort to catch more fish than their neighbors.  That was recognized by Dennis Abbot, proxy to New Hampshire’s Legislative Appointee, who made a motion to prevent its use for striped bass so long as the species was overfished or overfishing was occurring, and opined that the public ought to get the chance to weigh in on the issue.

At ASMFC, it’s not unusual for management boards to put controversial issues out for public comment, even if the majority of the board disapproves, but Mr. Abbot’s motion stirred up a hornet’s nest, particularly from the states that always seem to use it to catch more and/or smaller fish than their others in the region. 

Tom Fote, the Governor’s Appointee from New Jersey, one of only two coastal states that allows anglers to kill two bass per day (plus a third, if they get a “bonus” permit), was one of the first to attack, claiming that states have to tailor rules to the needs of their fishermen and their fisheries (but, apparently, not to the needs of their fish), and then—as he always does—invoking his preferred role as protector of poor folks fishing off banks and piers. 

Of course, all that is irrelevant to New Jersey’s striped bass regulations, which allow anglers to take one fish of at least 28 inches, but less than 43, and one over 40 inches, since the “pier fishermen” are likely catching small fish, and would be served as well by the standard 1 @ 28” (not to mention that the guys on the pier would probably be better off if regulations were tightened so that more of those 28-inchers survive long enough for them to catch). 

But I suppose that it’s easier for him to sleep at night if he sees himself as “Protector of the Poor” rather than the more honest “Friend of the Fish Hog…”

Mr. Abbot's motion on conservation equivalency came as a bit of a surprise, and a number of Management Board members spoke against it for one reason or another, and in the end it went down by a vote of 2 for, 12 against, and 1 abstention.  But the length and extent of the debate was notable, and should an amendment be initiated next spring, the casusal use of conservation equivalency is likely to get a long, hard look.

Of course, despite the findings of the stock assessment, there are always the folks who get up to say that there is no real problem.

Not surprisingly, a lot of them come from Maryland, which is constantly seeking a bigger kill.  In the public comment section of the meeting, the head of the Maryland Watermen’s Association got up to assure the Management Board that there was no problem with the striped bass stock, and that management should remain at the status quo.  

Later in the debate, Russell Dize, Maryland’s Governor’s Appointee, tried to ease people’s minds by saying

“I’ve never in all my life seen so many small striped bass…so many small rockfish in our portion of the bay that when you’re going down the trot line to get crabs, sometimes you dip small striped bass…I hear a lot of gloom and doom, but I do see a ray of sunshine…”
I suppose when your fishery sits in the middle of the most important nursery area on the coast, and it’s built around killing immature fish, seeing what you believe is a lot of small fish might seem like a “ray of sunshine.”  But when you’re out on the coast, and know that your fishery—and the future of the striped bass itself—depends on those young fish surviving their years in Maryland, getting out to the coast and recruiting into the spawning stock, the talk out of Maryland, and the attitudes expressed by the folks who fish there, aren’t a “ray of sunshine” at all.

And maybe that was the most hopeful thing that I felt at the meeting.  There seemed to be an undercurrent—not among everyone, but among most—that the sort of abuse of the fishery we’ve seen in the past can’t continue, and that no state should be entitled to kill a disproportionate share of the stock.  It wasn’t spoken—not exactly, and no fingers were pointed—but if you listened, you understood what was behind the words.

We still have a lot of work to do to get the striped bass back on track.

But after attending yesterday’s meeting, and feeling the mood of the room, I think that we have a chance to get it done.

4 comments:

  1. Well stated Charlie and thanks for your public comments yesterday. In my view conservation equivalency makes sense. If states can present options that meet the harvest goals so be it. This issue is how conservation equivalency options are managed once adopted. Currently there is no recourse if a state grossly fails to meet the harvest goals. That is what has to change.

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  2. Great job Charlie. Agree Ross CE without accountability doesn't work for the fish

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  3. Thanks for the excellent review Charlie. I take some comfort in your assessment of the future. The price for that outcome will be steadfast vigilance. The bell has been rung, it is up to us to keep the pressure on.

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