The estimates were delayed due to COVID-19 interrupting the usual in-person angler interviews, in which surveyors count and measure fish caught at numerous locations along the coast as part of the Marine Recreational Information Program. Effort data, collected through a mail survey, was relatively unaffected by the disease. So for 2020, instead of following its usual practice of issuing preliminary estimates for both each two-month “wave” and for the entire year, and then refining and finalizing such estimates later on, NMFS waited until it could calculate a final set of figures before releasing anything at all.
Given the circumstances that they were working under, it probably made sense to take that approach, particularly because, in most places, no data was available for most of March and April, and data was limited for most of the rest of the year. To calculate the 2020 recreational catch and landings estimates, NMFS had to address gaps in the data by “imputing” catch and harvest levels based on patterns established in previous years. Such imputation probably couldn’t be done without first obtaining a full year of data.
But while that approach was sensible, it left fishery managers flying blind when they set 2021 rules, because they had no idea of whether the regulations that they adopted for the 2020 season were constraining catch to or below the recreational harvest limits. Lackingsuch information, managers tended to carry 2020 regulations into 2021, althoughin some cases, it didn’t seem wise to do so. Striped bass provided a notable exception to such status quo rules, since Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan kicked in last year, and called for an 18 percent reduction in fishing mortality along the entire coast.
So did 2020 regulations manage to keep harvest under control? And what implications do 2020 landings hold for fisheries in 2021 and beyond?
Looking at five popular mid-Atlantic fisheries, bluefish, summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, and striped bass, the results seem to be a mixed bag.
Striped bass probably present the simplest picture. 2019 recreational landings were estimated to be around 2.15 million fish; in 2020, the estimate fell to about 1.71 million fish. That represents about a 20.5 percent decline.
However, the data also shows that the reductions in landings weren’t shared equally. New England was hit particularly hard, with New Hampshire’s landings down 79 percent, Massachusetts’ down 66 percent, Rhode Island’s down 65 percent (although the percent standard error in the 2020 estimate was very high), and Maine’s down 50 percent. Connecticut was the only New England state to buck the trend, with landings increasing by about 6 percent.
On the other hand, New York, Connecticut’s cross-Sound neighbor, followed the trend of greater New England, seeing its striped bass landings fall by 59 percent.
Farther south, New Jersey saw its landings increase by 26 percent, by far the highest increase on the coast, while in neighboring Delaware landings fell by 85 percent, the steepest decline experienced anywhere. In the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, Maryland landings fell by a very modest 4 percent, while Virginia’s recreational harvest actually rose by 17 percent.
At this point, it’s reasonable to ask why coastwide landings fell.
Was it due to the new regulations adopted pursuant to Addendum VI, which sought an 18% coastwide reduction in fishing mortality, compared to 2017, in order to end overfishing and reduce fishing mortality to the target level? Was it due to a reduction in angling effort? Or was it due to a lack of striped bass?
The answer to that question isn’t completely clear, although it appears that Addendum VI probably played a significant role.
It is clear that there was no decline in angling effort. In 2019, anglers along the New England and mid-Atlantic coasts took a little under 15.8 million directed striped bass trips. That number increased very slightly, to just over 15.9 million trips in 2020, although the difference between the years was so slight as to be statistically insignificant. So the reason for the decline in landings must have been something else.
The cause for a decline in landings also doesn’t appear to be a lack of fish. In 2019, anglers caught nearly 31 million striped bass; that number went up to over 32 million bass in 2020, about a 5 percent increase. When catch increases while effort remains flat, it’s reasonable to assume that a greater number of fish were available to anglers—something confirmed by anecdotal reports of large schools of small bass from the 2015 year class being encountered by anglers everywhere between Virginia and Maine.
What is harder to discern is whether the decline in landings was due to regulations imposed pursuant to Addendum VI, to the presence of fish that were too small for anglers to legally retain even before Addendum VI was adopted, or to anglers releasing a larger percentage of fish that they could have legally retained.
All three factors probably played a role, but there is little question that Addendum VI’s slot limit reduced the number of large fish retained by anglers. The only places where anglers could legally retain striped bass larger than 35 inches in 2020 were New Jersey, Virginia, and in Maryland during its spring “trophy” season; the latter area was the only place where bass over 38 inches could be legally landed.
In 2019, anglers harvested over 550,000 striped bass with a fork length of 33 inches or more (because NMFS data uses fork length, while state regulations generally use length-over-all data, I used a 33-inch fork length as equivalent to a 35-inch length-over-all, although that’s only a rough approximation); after Addendum VI imposed the 28- to 35-inch slot, the harvest of fish with a fork length over 33 inches dropped by almost half, to slightly under 230,000. That reduction in the number of larger bass that were retained would account for about half of the decline in landings between 2019 and 2020.
Given that, it would be difficult to argue that Addendum VI did not play a role, although it was probably not the only reason that 2020 landings were lower.
The other big question is whether Addendum VI met its goal of reducing landings by 18 percent, compared to 2017. In that regard, the Addendum appears to have been a success.
2017 striped bass landings were approximately 2.9 million fish. In 2020, only 1.7 million striped bass were landed. That’s nearly a 42 percent decrease, more than twice the 18 percent reduction called for in Addendum VI.
Of course, there’s more to reducing fishing mortality than just cutting landings; release mortality must be considered, too. But given that the number of bass released dropped from 38.0 million in 2017 to 30.7 million in 2020, a 19 percent reduction, it appears that the drop in release mortality fell within Addendum VI parameters, too.
Again, there can be multiple reasons for the decline in landings, apart from Addendum VI. 2020 effort was down somewhat compared to 2017, but nowhere near enough to account for the full 42 percent reduction in landings. And overall catch in 2020 was about 21 percent lower than it was in 2017 which, even when adjusted for lower angler effort, suggests that fewer fish were available to anglers (although, without a stock assessment update, that’s just a guess).
But the combination of declining effort and any decline in the number of fish that might have been available to anglers would only account for about half of the 42 percent reduction in landings since 2017. Given that, and given the 20.5 percent landings reduction between 2019 and 2020, when the Amendment's new management measures kicked in, it’s probably safe to assume that Addendum VI did, in fact, do its job.
Thus, the recently released 2020 striped bass catch and landings data paint a fairly clear picture. It reveals that landings continue to decline, and that Addendum VI is probably working at least as well, and very possibly better, than fishery managers had intended—at least in 2020.
That's all good news.
On Thursday, I’ll take a look at four stocks managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, where the 2020 estimates tell very different stories. At least one of those stories is surprisingly good; others give cause for concern.