Sunday, May 10, 2020
STRIPED BASS AND BLUEFISH: PAST MISTAKES SHOULDN'T DICTATE THE FUTURE
Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held two meetings that were important to most anglers who fish New England and mid-Atlantic waters.
Because of the hazards posed by COVID-19, both meetings were held by webinar.
That had a big impact on the meeting of the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, which was originally planning to vote on a twice-postponed motion to initiate a new addendum to the management plan, as well as on another postponed motion that, if passed, would have held states accountable for their failures to meet their required fishing mortality reductions under Addendum VI to Amendment to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.
Because the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board was meeting by webinar for the first time, it was decided that no management actions would be taken at the May meeting, and that votes on both motions would again be postponed, this time until August. Yet, although no votes were held,
“the Board decided to form a Work Group (WG) of Board members to further discuss [conservation equivalency, accountability] and other issues that should be considered in a future management document, with the WG reporting back to the Board in August. This will allow work to continue on these important issues to the extent practical during these challenging times.”
It’s not yet clear who will sit on that working group. The good news is that the ASMFC has provided clear assurance that
“WG meetings will be open to the public and progress reports will be made available (when possible) to ensure transparency of WG proceedings.”
It’s now up to those concerned with the striped bass’ future to listen in on every Work Group meeting to assure that the discussions focus on the long-term health of the bass, and not on the short-term incomes of those in the striped bass fishery.
Anyone who has either listened in on or read the transcripts of management board meetings knows that such board is very split in its vision for the bass’ future.
On one hand, you have the opinions voiced by representatives from New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, most of whom have consistently supported a conservative model of striped bass management that emphasizes abundance and the long-term health of the stock.
Their stance on important issues might best be summed up by the comments of G. Ritchie White, the Governor’s Appointee from New Hampshire and a long-time champion of striped bass conservation, who said last August that
“An amendment doesn’t mean less or more conservative, and I’m certainly going to support an amendment, and I’m going to support an amendment to be more conservative.
“…We’ll look at more structural parts of striped bass management in an amendment, and hopefully it will be more conservative so we don’t have to undergo the issues we’re undergoing now. Put something in place so the stock stays in a good situation.”
On the other hand, there are states such as Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware, along with the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which have long opposed conservative striped bass management, and seem far more concerned with creating short-term economic benefits for their commercial and recreational fishing industries than in supporting a management structure most likely to keep the stock healthy in the long term.
Thus, last February, we saw Maryland and New Jersey championing supposedly “conservation equivalent” management measures that allowed their states to escape the full conservation burden imposed by Addendum VI, measures that reduced the probability of such Addendum reducing striped bass fishing mortality back to the target level from an already marginal 50 percent to a mere 42 percent, a level that makes the Addendum more likely to fail than succeed, and would have been legally unacceptable if striped bass were managed under a federal fishery management plan.
If the Work Group’s membership was weighted too heavily toward such representatives, we could see a report that endorses the thoughts of those who, like Maryland fisheries manager Michael Luisi, believes that
“the threshold reference point is 91,000 metric tons and 125 percent of that puts us at a target value, and when you look at the estimates of spawning stock biomass that came out of the benchmark. We have never achieved the target in all of that time as we’re evaluating that.
“With that said, I understand thresholds as being something where the stock is in what I would think as considerable trouble. When I look back as to when that threshold was developed, you know a date was chosen, a period of time was chosen when the stock was considered recovered.
“It’s difficult to communicate with stakeholders about the appropriateness of thresholds and targets; when you have a threshold that you think the stock is in trouble, but at the same time when it was recovered. Then you have a target that you’ve never achieved…”
Such comments make it clear that those in Mr. Luisi’s camp reject the concept of managing striped bass for abundance, and would let the stock sink to even lower levels than it is today—to, in his words, let it decline until the stock is in “considerable trouble” before deeming it overfished and taking remedial action.
What’s even more disturbing in the willful blindness that such comments reveal. Yes, he is being completely accurate when he says that the current biomass target has never been achieved. However, he’s leaving out a very big part of the story: Managers have never been willing to cut fishing mortality back to the target level, either, and the two reference points go hand in hand.
In order to build the female spawning stock biomass all the way back to the target level, managers must cut striped bass fishing mortality all the way back to target as well. Allowing states such as Maryland to adopt “conservation equivalent” measures that make Addendum VI more likely to fail than to achieve its goals is not the way to rebuild the stock.
To champion inadequate measures to rebuild the spawning stock biomass, and then use the failure of such weak measures torebuild the spawning stock biomass as an excuse to put the long-term health of the stock at risk, is an example of blatant hypocrisy.
Yet it may not only happen with striped bass. There is a risk that bluefish may fall victim to the same sort of thinking.
That risk is less, as bluefish are federally managed, and unlike managers at the ASMFC, federal fisheries managers are legally obligated to adhere to the best available science when determining biomass targets. They may not simply pick a number out of the air in order to please local constituencies.
Although things could change when the next benchmark assessment comes out, right now, the best available science is an operational stock assessment released in August 2019, which shows that bluefish are overfished and sets the biomass target at 198,717 metric tons.
The time series reflecting bluefish spawning stock biomass only goes back to 1985 and, as in the case of striped bass, shows that the biomass target was never achieved. And I have heard talk, some from staunch conservation advocates, that such target isn’t realistic for that reason.
But, once again, they’re leaving out a very important f. In the case of bluefish, similar to the case of striped bass, managers have failed to constrain bluefish fishing mortality to or below the target level in any year between 1985 and today.
Even worse, bluefish have been overfished in every year between 1985 and 2017 and perhaps—for no one knows one way or the other—for years before that.
After all, bluefish landings peaked in 1981, the first year that such data was available, at about 170 million pounds and 65 million fish, and began declining immediately after, dropping to only about 105 million pounds and 41 million fish by 1985, the first year of the biomass and fishing mortality time series. Higher landings, under unchanged regulations, suggest a larger bluefish stock may well have existed prior to 1985.
Perhaps bluefish were at or above the target level during the early 1980s or 1970s, but the stock was already being depleted by too much fishing pressure.
It’s not something many people seem to want to consider, or to say out loud, because if they did they’d be admitting that if the spawning stock biomass had reached that point once, it could do so again, and that restrictions on fishing were justified.
Instead, we hear too many people using managers' past failures to constrain landings of both striped bass and bluefish to sustainable levels, and their resultant failure to rebuild or maintain such stocks at target biomass, as an excuse not to do so today.
Thus, they would perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It would be better if they tried to perpetuate healthy fish stocks, by reducing fishing mortality all the way back to target, keeping it there for a number of years, and seeing how stocks respond.