Sunday, June 4, 2023



If you listen to current discussions about striped bass management, you’ll quickly learn that there is a real need to reduce overall fishing mortality. 

But listen a little closer, and the nuances begin to come through.  It’s not only fishing mortality, some people will tell you, that is the problem, but a specific kind of fishing mortality—the mortality that occurs when recreationally-caught fish are returned to the water.

They call it “release mortality,” and sometimes “dead discards/”   But whatever you call it, in the case of striped bass you largely mean the same thing—fish returned to the water by anglers which, despite the anglers' best efforts and intentions, fail to survive.

If we look at the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, we learn that there are two kinds of discards, “economic discards” and “regulatory discards.”  Magnuson-Stevens tells us that

“The term ‘economic discards’ means fish which are the target of a fishery, but which are not retained because they are of an undesirable size, sex, or quality, or for other economic reasons,”


“The term ‘regulatory discards’ means fish harvested in a fishery which fishermen are required by regulation to discard whenever caught, or are required by regulation to retain but not sell.”

If we apply those definitions to the recreational striped bass fishery, it’s clear that anglers don’t typically produce economic discards, since economic considerations don’t generally dictate whether or not recreational fishermen keep a fish.  On the other hand, striped bass anglers can and do produce regulatory discards, when they return a fish to the water because it does not comply with the existing size limit, bag limit, or season.

While it is nice to think that all discarded fish returned to the water survive, we know that’s not the case.  Some fish inevitably die after being released.  There is a general consensus that reducing discards to the extent practical, and thus reducing discard mortality, is a responsible goal.  That makes perfect sense, as discards, whether economic or regulatory, provide no economic benefit, and are not valued by fishermen.  The presence of discards only causes fishermen unneeded work while placing additional stress on fish populations.

However, in recreational fisheries—and particularly in the recreational striped bass fishery—many fish are caught that do not easily fit into either category of discards.  They are targeted, and caught, by anglers, who have no intent to retain them.  

While some of those fish might arguably be regulatory discards, others are fish that anglers may keep but choose not to, because they value the act of catching fish far more than they value keeping such fish and taking them home.  

Such intentionally released fish fall outside the definitions of economic or regulatory discards.  The very term “discard” connotes something unwanted, while the fish we’re discussing here were fish that the angler very much wanted to catch, but did not want to keep.  What we’re talking about are preplanned, intentional releases of fish that the angler never intended to retain..

In the case of striped bass, we are talking about a release fishery which, by its existence, generates substantial social and economic benefits that are separate and apart from—and arguably substantially greater than—the benefits derived from harvest.  Yet even if fish are not intentionally harvested, some released fish will not survive.  In the striped bass fishery, managers have not yet comfortably come to grips with such release mortality.

Instead, they often try to make an inappropriate value judgement, and equate such releases to discards.

Discards, or at least dead discards, represent unalloyed waste.  Undersized, over-limit, or out-of-season fish that are shoveled off a trawler's deck, often already dead or dying, do no one any good, although various scavengers might get an easy meal. Similarly, sharks dumped off a longliner because they’d take up space in the hold that might otherwise be used for more valuable tuna or swordfish are killed without providing any countervailing benefit to anyone.

Release mortality is often conflated with such discard mortality, and is too often seen as something equally bad, to be minimized whenever possible.  In the hierarchy of management outcomes, fish intentionally killed and harvested by anglers are held in higher regard than those unintentionally killed during release.  Managers seek to maximize landings, while minimizing release mortality.

Thus, the fact that release mortality accounts for about half of all striped bass fishing mortality causes consternation, while the fact that the combined recreational and commercial striped bass harvest accounts for 48%--also about half—of such mortality does not.  

Yet, from a biological perspective, there is no qualitative difference between a fish that dies after release and a fish that dies after being thrown into a cooler.  Both have been removed from the population, both have been removed from the spawning stock, neither will contribute to future reproduction.

To put it succinctly, dead is dead.  To a fish population, or to an ecosystem, the details of the death don’t matter. 

However, from the perspective of the fishery, maybe how a bass dies really does make a difference.  Perhaps a high level of release mortality, far from being the great bugaboo, is a sign that the fishery is maximizing its social and economic returns.

Let me pause for a second to be sure that everyone understands:  I am not saying that a high release mortality rate is a good thing.  Right now, the release mortality rate for striped bass is believed to be 9 percent, which is one of the lowest release mortality rates on the East Coast.  Even so, any realistic ways to drop the rate even lower are worthy of pursuit.

Instead, I am arguing that it’s not necessarily a bad thing when recreational release mortality is the greatest single component of striped bass fishing mortality.

That’s because the striped bass is fishery primarily a recreational fishery, with 85 to 90 percent of all fishing mortality attributable to the recreational sector.  Furthermore, it is not merely a recreational fishery, but a recreational release fishery that, since 1990, has seen about 90 percent of the fish caught by anglers returned to the water.

The benefits of such a fishery are optimized by maximizing recreational effort, although always within sustainable limits, and not by maximizing recreational yield.

When effort increases, the number of releases increases, so the number of fish that die after release will increase as well.  But that’s fine, so long as the increase in release mortality is offset by more restrictive management measures that result in a corresponding reduction in landings.

Yes, I know that’s heresy to saltwater fisheries managers, who have long worshipped at the altar of yield, and still quest after the highest sustainable level of landings.  But it’s not a new concept; managing fisheries for recreational effort, rather than yield, is something that has been done for years, in both fresh and salt water.

No-kill trout streams are probably the best-known example.  In such rivers, trout are often larger and more abundant than they are in waters where harvest is allowed.  While recreational release mortality accounts for 100 percent of all fishing mortality in such waters, few if any fisheries managers see any problem with that.

A similar situation exists in the Florida tarpon fishery, where all tarpon caught must be released; the only exception comes in the form of a permit, issued to anglers seeking a state or world record fish, which allows them to retain a single contending tarpon each year.  Once again, release mortality is, by far, the primary component of fishing mortality, but no one seems too concerned.

And those are merely two examples.  In many purely recreational fisheries—bonefish, permit, largemouth bass, muskellunge—catch-and-release angling is widely practiced, and is the single largest source of fishing mortality, yet no one complains.

Why should the striped bass fishery be viewed any differently?

If striped bass were managed to maximize yield, pursuant to size and perhaps bag limits that made it relatively easy for anglers to catch and take home a legal-sized fish, effort would have to be sharply curtailed, probably by substantial closed seasons, to prevent overfishing.  Managers would need to closely regulate catch-and-release fishing, and almost certainly prohibiting it during any closed seasons, in order to reduce release mortality to a sustainable level.  Because no one spends money on trips they can’t take, such a reduction in effort would result in a sharp reduction in the economic benefits gleaned from the striped bass fishery.  People might be keeping more bass, but they would be catching (and releasing) fewer of them, and spending less money on each harvested fish.

On the other hand, if bass were managed to maximize angler effort, probably through the use of very restrictive size and bag limits, release mortality would increase.  Because it takes 11 released fish to equal the harm done to the bass population by harvesting a single individual, anglers would be able to take many more trips, and spend far more money, than they would in a harvest-oriented fishery.

Contrary to what people often say at management meetings, managing the striped bass fishery in a way that maximizes effort will provide greater economic benefits to angling-related businesses, and provide anglers with greater recreational opportunities, than will managing the fishery for yield.

A higher level of release mortality is merely the price that managers must pay to maximize the fishery’s social and economic returns. 

Thus, the members of the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board must learn to stop worrying about, and fearing, release mortality.  Instead, they must learn to embrace it, and realize that such mortality, and not that attributable to landings, is the key to maximizing the social and economic values of the most important inshore fishery in the United States.






Thursday, June 1, 2023



I didn’t fish as much as I wanted to this spring.  The season started out well, with a run to a couple of offshore wrecks toward the end of April, but on the way home I noticed a leak in my hydraulic steering, and between turkey season and some traveling, I didn’t get it fixed until toward the end of May, when I learned that someone, earlier in the life of the boat, must have faced the same problem, decided to fix it themselves, and ended up putting the main seal in backwards, resulting in a repair that didn’t last quite as long as it should have.

I finally managed to get out yesterday, finding the predawn bay covered in fog that knocked visibility down to a hundred or so yards and forced me to throttle back and trust GPS and radar to get me to where I was headed, turning what should have been a 25-minute run into a 2-hour trek.  By the time that I got to the grounds, I had lost the tide, and spent an hour or so in fruitless casting until the current picked up and began running out.  But by that time, it was already close to nine in the morning, and there was work to be done, so my wife and I began fishing our way back toward the dock.

Between the fog and the slack tide, it wasn’t a productive trip.  We had hoped to find a few weakfish, which have been slowly increasing in numbers over the past few years, and maybe a bluefish or two.  As it was, we saw another boat net something of very modest size—we were too far away to see what it was, although I’m guessing weakfish—and my wife had a couple of hits that were certainly blues, as they sheared away the back end of her soft plastic lure.

But then again, it hasn't been a particularly productive season so far--for anyone.  There have been a few striped bass, some decent, if on-and-off, fishing for bluefish, and an acceptable showing of weaks, but fluke have been spotty and legal fluke scarce.  

I live fairly close to Captree State Park, which hosts a large party and charter boat fleet.  The folks who run the boats are, for the most part, capable captains who have years of experience fishing local waters, and can usually find fish if there are any around.  The boats themselves range from slow, vintage hulls dating back many decades, which usually remain in the bay, to large, modern vessels that can fish anywhere between their dock and the edge of the continental shelf.

Thus, when I'm not catching too much and want a fast snapshot of what’s going on, I often take a look at the party boats’ fishing reports, which generally provide a rosy review of what people are catching.

One fleet’s (two boats') report for the last few days read like this:  Yesterday,

“Today’s 7AM trip caught 29 fluke to 5.46 LBS…Today’s 1pm trip had 6 fishermen.  They caught 1 Fluke, 2 Bluefish, 1 Weakfish and 5 Cape Shark [the boat’s favorite euphemism for dogfish, either spiny or smooth].  Tonight’s 6pm trip caught 6 Striped Bass, 2 Bluefish and 1 Weakfish.”

For May 30, the same boat reported,

“Today’s 7am trip caught 8 Fluke.  Today’s 1pm trip caught 2 Fluke and 4 Bluefish.  Tonight’s 6pm trip caught 1 Striper and 3 Bluefish.”

And then there was Memorial Day (which, to be fair, was very windy):

“…Today’s 7am trip caught 2 Fluke, 6 Hake, 50 seabass [which, being out of season, had to be released], 2 mackerel and 15 Cape Shark.  Tonight’s 6pm trip is cancelled for lack of interest.  Today’s 1pm trip caught 2 Fluke…”

That’s not exactly setting the world on fire.  Of course, no matter where you might be, fishing isn’t always good; two weeks ago, things seemed a bit better.  On May 15

“Today’s 7am trip caught 22 Fluke, 2 Sea Robins, 2 Cape Shark and 1 Sand Tiger Shark.  Tonight’s 6PM trip is cancelled due to lack of interest.  Today’s 1pm trip caught 12 Fluke and 1 Bluefish.”

On May 16,

“…Today’s 7am trip caught 11 Fluke, 1 Bluefish and 2 Cape Shark.  Today’s 1pm trip caught 2 Fluke, 1 Bluefish, and 1 Blowfish.  Tonight’s 6pm trip caught 3 Weakfish, 1 Striped Bass, and 1 Cape Shark.”

And for May 17,

“…Today’s 1pm trip is cancelled…Tonight’s 6pm trip is cancelled due to lack of interest.  Today’s 7am trip caught 5 Fluke, 2 Sea Robins, and 1 Cape Shark.”

Arguably better action than the last few days, but still not particularly good.  And it’s important to note that while the report notes how many fluke and striped bass were caught, it didn’t mention how many were large enough that they might have been legally kept (as I noted above, these reports tend to be rosy). 

That makes a big difference, particularly with “meat fish” such as fluke.

While there were better days—on May 2, one boat, carrying 11 anglers, reportedly caught 125 striped bass, with every person aboard taking home a legal fish, while on May 3, a dozen fishermen were said to have caught 48 fluke up to 5.42 pounds—the fishing has been, by and large, unspectacular.

It’s actually been that way for some years.

Today's fishing is a stark contrast to the way it was when I first moved to Long Island in 1983.  Back then, May was the month when it all broke wide open.

Winter flounder were still widely available.  As the bay warmed, flounder would move out of the backwaters and into the main channels, with what seemed to be most of the fish eventually moving out of the inlets and into the ocean.  Throughout the month, both private and for-hire boats intercepted the concentration of fish, taking what we now know was far too many flounder home. 

That fishery collapsed long ago, and no longer exists.

As winter flounder were exiting the bays, summer flounder were rolling in.  I still remember my first May morning in Fire Island Inlet, back in '84.  We had just moved my boat to the South Shore, and I was just begining to feel out the water, drifting through the inlet on the outgoing tide, using supermarket squid for bait.  While I don’t recall exactly how many fluke I caught that morning, I recall that it was probably something like eight or ten or maybe a dozen—more than the number of fish supposedly caught by the entire boat in some of the reports reproduced above.

Granted, the fluke are bigger these days—back in the ‘80s, the size limit was just 14 inches, yet we still mostly caught undersized fish—but they are also significantly harder to come by during most of the year.

Then there were blackfish (a/k/a tautog).  In the mid1980sBack then, there were enough blackfish around to justify a May season; in fact, in the ’80s, there was no closed season at all.  Anglers could find fish on mussel beds and around hard structure within the bay, while those willing to take a ride to an inshore wreck—the Roda, which sits partially exposed at low tide off eastern Nassau County, was my favorite at the time—often managed to catch a good mess of fish.  Today, theNew York Bight blackfish stock remains overfished, and the season is closed during May, in part to protect spawning fish.

And, of course, there were bluefish, flooding into the bays as the water warmed.  Little fish—up to five pounds or so—might pop up anywhere between the inlets and the backwaters, while larger blues stacked up in the inlets when the outgoing tide brought warm water, or lay quiet on the flats, unseen but willing to explode on a surface plug splashing over their heads.

There are still some blues moving through—we had some fairlyu big fish this year, and some fairly big schools of small ones—but nothing like it was years ago, when so many bluefish chased bait in the bay that there weren’t enough terns and laughing gulls to wheel and feed over every separate school.

Just outside the inlets, in the early part of the month, a vast body of Atlantic mackerel streamed past, so many fish that anglers using multi-hooked rigs caught them three, four, even five at a time, and could fill a freezer with shark and tuna bait in just one or two trips.

We haven’t seen those big mackerel schools in more than 30 years.

Yet, to me, those fish are all sideshows, for May has always belonged to the weakfish.

There are still some around.  Although the population has fallen to very low numbers, for reasons that scientists haven’t completely discerned (one recent hypothesis concerns increasing predation by bottlenose dolphins), it has made a comeback in recent years,  In Great South Bay, at least, we’re probably seeing more, if somewhat smaller, fish than we have at any point since the late 1990s.  As a result, it’s not unusual to see a score or more boats on the traditional weakfishing grounds.

Yet that is, again, a far cry from what it looked like in ’84, when portions of Great South Bay resembled a mooring area, because so many boats were drifting for weakfish in the first grey light before dawn.

All told, the fishing on the South Shore of Long Island is badly diminished from what it was forty years ago.  We may have faster boats, better electronics, and more technologically advanced tackle to support our quest, but even with such assistance, we have to work harder to catch fewer fish.

One of my closest and oldest friends, who has fished with me for near 50 years, often comments that if he was young, and had to start over again, he doesn’t know whether he’d get into fishing.  He admits that maybe—just maybe—he might buy a kayak, but given how badly fishing has declined, he’s not sure that it would be worth getting into the sport, and spending the many thousands of dollars he's spent on boats and fishing gear, just to partake of a badly diminished resource.

The one exception to that diminution, of course, is striped bass, which even in their current, overfished state are far more abundant than they were in ’84.  But fisheries managers at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission managed to fully rebuild the stock by the mid-1990s, and even though we’re not seeing the abundance we saw twenty years ago, after the stock had been completely restored, there are enough fish around to keep people happy—for now.

Although still overfished, the population is rebuilding slowly, but a combination of increased recreational landings and poor recruitment in the Chesapeake Bay—the single most important spawning area on the coast—will cause it to go into further decline if current regulations remain intact, beginning around 2027.  The ASMFC has taken steps to prevent thatfrom happening, but as of now, not all states—and New York is one of the laggards—have implemented the emergency management measures, and it’s hard to predict what shape the pending Addendum II is going to take.

One thing that is probably certain is that New York’s anglers, as well as its angling-related businesses, can’t afford to lose the striped bass, which has now become the most popular saltwater recreational fish in the state.  Last year, New York anglers took over 5.8 million trips primarily targeting striped bass, which was more than a third of all saltwater fishing trips taken by such anglers.  No other species comes close (summer flounder, at 3.1 million trips, was next in line).

Over the years, New York anglers have experienced continually diminishing returns on their investments in recreational fishing.  They’ve lost the winter flounder, lost the spring blackfish season, lost the Atlantic mackerel.  Fluke, bluefish, and weakfish are still around, but in much lower numbers.  Farther offshore, we lost the spring pollock run at Block Island 35 years ago, local cod are not doing well, and mako sharks are faring so badly that they must be released; shark fishermen no longer head offshore on Memorial Day weekend, vying to catch that first mako.

If we lose the striped bass, then a lot of young anglers may very well feel that it’s no longer worth spending money on fish that are no longer there.  There will be very little reason for new anglers—young or old—to enter the sport, and good reason for many existing anglers to find a new pastime.

Yet more than a few people in New York’s angling industry oppose the emergency striped bass measures, which don’t impose seasons when people can’t fish, but merely carve a few inches off the top of the current slot limit, so that a legal fish must measure between 28 and 31 inches, rather than the current 28 to 35.  Such people fear that such measures might cost them some business.

And maybe they will.

But losing a little is still better than losing everything. 

Given the current importance of striped bass to New York’s recreational fishery, if poor recruitment and excessive harvest combine to cause a new stock collapse, the collapse of the state’s recreational fishing industry probably won’t be too far behind.

Sunday, May 28, 2023



Self-serving arguments are common in many debates, and fisheries management proves no exception.

We learned that the other night, at one of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s hearings on the emergency striped bass measures, when some New England charter boat captains argued for “sector separation”—basically, letting their customers fish under special, more liberal rules—as a matter of economic justice, claiming that their boats provide access to fisheries resources to folks who lack the means to purchase and maintain a boat of their own.

It almost seems plausible.  But stop and think about that for a minute.

The primary proponent of the argument—I won’t embarrass him by name—runs a good-sized charter boat.  His cheapest trip, available only on July and August afternoons, is aimed at

“those who want to spend a few hours fishing in the…area with the chance to bring home some fresh fish for dinner.”

It costs $525 for the trip—or at least it did a few years ago, when fuel was much cheaper and his website was last updated—which means that everyone in a typical, 6-person charter party would have to pony up a little over $100 apiece, once a tip for the mate, travel costs to the dock, and related costs are considered.

That’s not a lot of money for entertainment these days, the per-person cost being just a little bit more than that of a half-day trip on a party boat (here on Long Island, the party boats charge somewhere around $60 for a four or five hour trip, to which tips, transportation, and such must again be added).  But when things are framed in an economic justice context, as those captains did, $100 is still a lot of money for someone with little discretionary cash to pay for a trip on which one might or might not catch a striped bass (mid-summer afternoons probably being the least-likely time to convince one to hit), although targeting other species such as summer flounder, scup, or black sea bass would probably guarantee at least modest success.

Still, the for-hire fleet often couches its arguments for less restrictive regulations in economic justice terms, whatever the species, claiming that they represent poorer folks’ access to the resource, that bag limits must be high enough to allow anglers to take sufficient fish home to justify the costs of the trip, etc. 

And as I noted, that sounds reasonable at first hearing.

But when you think about it a little longer, you begin to realize that in a fisheries context, real economic justice is achieved not by lax regulations which erode the health of fish stocks, and allow higher harvests in the short term, but by effective fisheries conservation measures that increase fish abundance, and ultimately makes fish so widely available that anglers—rich or poor—don’t need to hire a boat at all.

For, while plenty of lower-income folks fish, most fish for food and not just for pleasure, and while a good share of those folks occasionally treat themselves to a for-hire trip, the majority of their angling is done close to home, at places they can access by foot, or maybe by bicycle or even public transport, at minimal cost to themselves.  Places that, unlike the docks where the for-hire boats moor, they can access without even owning a car.

I see such anglers when I drive off Long Island, fishing alongside the Cross Island Parkway and from the jetties and shoreline near the Throggs Neck Bridge.  You can see them fishing in the East River, from Brooklyn’s piers and bulkheads or from the Manhattan shoreline, which gives them access to the Hudson River as well; on the other side of the Hudson, they fish from similar structures jutting out from the New Jersey shore.

You can find their counterparts fishing from pieces of public—or not well fenced-in pieces of private—shoreline in every town and big city along the coast.  Some are equipped with utilitarian rods and reels; some wrap their line around beer cans, having learned to “cast” surprisingly well with such simple gear.

I well remember having a conversation with the groundskeeper of place where we stayed in the middle Keys, who pointed to the small barracuda swimming around the dock and described how he and his wife often depended on them for food after they first arrived from Missouri; the fish kept them going while they were still unemployed.

Such economically disadvantaged anglers who have no ability to follow the fish, anglers who can’t afford to travel to Cape Cod, Point Judith, or Montauk to fish for striped bass, hire a charter for tautog, or fish offshore structure for fluke.

What fish they catch must be fish that come to them, fish that can be caught in their local waters.

The ability for anglers of limited means to experience decent fishing without paying for a boat, or traveling any distance from home, is a real measure of economic justice in our recreational fisheries

It’s a timely issue to consider, as NOAA Fisheries has just released its Equity and Environmental Justice Strategy, which considers how to better share the nation’s marine resources among every resident of the United States, regardless of their economic status.

Such strategy is built around five basic principles.

·        The public should be afforded meaningful opportunities to participate in the formulation, design and execution of Department programs, policies and activities.

·        Tribes should, on a government to government basis, be afforded regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration opportunities in the development of policies that have tribal implications.

·        All populations should share in (and are not excluded from) benefits of Departmental programs, policies or activities affecting human health or the environment.

·        No population should be affected in a disproportionately high and adverse manner by agency programs, policies or activities affecting human health or the environment.

·        The department will engage in environmental justice activities in a transparent and accountable manner.

Three of those principles are primarily process issues, but the other two—which provide that all populations should share in, and none should be disproportionately disadvantaged by NOAA Fisheries policy—are relevant to conservation and management.  Having said that, it should be noted that NOAA Fisheries’ jurisdiction is focused almost entirely on federal waters, three or more miles offshore.  Outside of managing stocks for long-term abundance, it has little ability to aid those folks forced to fish, if they wish to fish at all, from their neighboring shoreline.  Still, the same principles ought to apply on the inshore grounds.

Which brings us back to species such as striped bass.

As anyone familiar with the fishery knows, the last couple of years, and particularly this year and last, have been marked by the big 2015 year class, both with respect to total abundance and to the number of fish falling into the recreational slot limit—currently 28 to 35 inches in most states, but soon to be 28 to 31 inches pursuant to the ASMFC’s recent emergency action—that people can legally take home.  There have been some bigger fish around, but most places aren’t seeing too many smaller fish coming up behind the 2015s.

Fishing can be spectacularly fast when the 2015s are around; you can watch the fish migrate up and down the coast, spurring a flurry of fast fishing wherever they happen to be.  But because most of the year classes between 2004 and 2010 were small, with many well below average, and because the last four years of recruitment in the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay, which produces the lion’s share of the migratory fish, has been poor, if the 2015s aren’t around, fishing slows to a near stop.

That’s not too much of a problem for folks who have a boat, and might run 30 miles from their home port to find fish, even if they have to troll over a deeper-water ledge a mile or two from shore in order to put something in the boat.  And it’s at best inconvenient for many surfcasters, who have the vacation time and resources to jump in their trucks and drive up to Cape Cod, take the ferry to Block Island, or take a ride out to Montauk for a few days, following the bite.  But if you’re a guy who pays the rent by washing dishes in the back of some Brooklyn bistro, and just want to toss a chunk of bunker into the East River for a few hours after work, if the 2015s have migrated past, and are now out in Montauk, Rhode Island, or Cape Cod, they might as well not exist at all.

That’s because when a fish population is small, it tends to concentrate in what’s known as its “core range;” in the case of a migratory species such as striped bass, there are typically two such ranges, one where fish feed during the summer (for striped bass, eastern Long Island to Cape Cod) and another where it spends the winter (for bass, traditional the deeper waters off the Virginia/North Carolina border, although the currently warming water has been moving the site somewhat farther north, leaving North Carolina behind).  Outside of those places, fish are generally caught only during their migration.

But when a population is large, competitive pressure causes some fish to leave the core range and feed elsewhere.  An abundant bass populations sees good numbers of fish migrating well into Maine waters, and also sees quite a few so-called “resident” fish remain behind, to summer in coastal bays and estuaries between Delaware and New York.

It is those resident fish that kindle hope in the hearts of urban anglers, and allows them to believe that if they cast a bait out into the Hudson (or Boston Harbor, or Rhode Island’s Providence River), they have a reasonable chance to put a striped bass fillet on the table without having to shell out $100 or more for a few hours fishing from somebody’s boat.

Good striped bass conservation can make that dream come true.

Sometimes, though, conservation isn’t enough.  The folks stuck on the shoreline need a little more help.  Consider scup and black sea bass.

Both are very abundant, but both tend to run larger farther from shore, where only the boats can reach them.  And despite—or perhaps because—they are so abundant, they’re being harvested in high enough numbers that fairly restrictive recreational management measures, including size limits, are still needed to avoid overfishing.

In the case of scup, managers in the northeast are trying to do the right thing, setting a 9 ½-inch size limit for shore-based anglers, an inch less than the 10 ½-inch limit for those fishing from boats.

But back sea bass remains a problem in the northeast.  This year, a mandated 10% landings reduction forced New York to go to a 16 ½-inch size limit.  While I’ve seen such fish in the bays, usually in the May, and always caught from boats, there is little chance for anglers fishing from piers or jetties to catch one big enough to take home.  New York could have kept its old 16-inch limit—and give up just a few days of the season—but the for-hires wanted the extra days.

And to be honest, as a practical matter, to a guy sitting on the end of a pier, the difference between 16 and 16 ½ is pretty close to none.  He probably won’t catch a fish of either size.

Now, New York might have been able to go to a somewhat smaller sea bass size limit, maybe even one small enough to give the folks on shore a realistic shot at a legal fish, if the bag limit didn’t double after August 31.  Might be even easier to drop the size if the state shut down the season sometime in September, the way Massachusetts does, instead of letting it run through the end of the year.

But given that the angling industry folks weren’t willing to give up even a few days of season to keep the 16-inch limit, it’s just about certain than any suggestion to cut out the entire fall season, just to provide a few fish for the guys stuck on shore, would face immediate rejection.

Things just tend to work out that way.

In fisheries, as elsewhere in life, folks talk about equity and economic justice if they think it will win them something that they want, but look the other way, and ignore the issue, if it might cost them anything at all.

Thursday, May 25, 2023



Prior to 1984, state fisheries management on the East Coast was, at best, chaotic.  Every state was on its own, free to adopt—or refuse to adopt—whatever regulations it chose, even when such actions affected the health of stocks that regularly migrated in and out of state waters. 

Things came to a head when the striped bass stock collapsed. 

States were looking at the drastic decline of a species that spawned in the Chesapeake Bay (the Hudson River and Delaware Bay also produced bass at the time but, like today, in far lower numbers), migrated as far north as Maine, and wintered off North Carolina.  No one state had the power to reverse the decline and begin rebuilding bass numbers, because one state’s regulations, no matter how restrictive, became meaningless as soon as the bass swam out of state waters.

As a result, states were reluctant to adopt rules that might negatively impact their local fishermen, knowing that they would only be protecting fish that might later be caught by fishermen in another jurisdiction.  The continuing decline eventually forced many states’ hands.  Some adopted larger size limits, while some completely shut down their fisheries.

Some were reluctant to do either.  When New York’s Senate and Assembly passed legislation to raise the striped bass size limit to 24 inches, then-Governor Mario Cuomo seriously considered vetoing the bill, although he eventually signed it at the urging of governors from other northeastern states.

Even after such actions were taken, the coast remained a patchwork of inconsistent rules, and the bass population continued to suffer. 

That changed in 1984, after Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which authorized the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission not only to devise a striped bass management plan, but to compel all coastal jurisdictions to adopt and enforce it.  Any state which failed to do so risked having a federal moratorium imposed on its striped bass fishery.

As a result, all the states adopted uniform rules, and the striped bass stock was rebuilt.

In 1993, Congress expanded the ASMFC’s management authority by passing the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which gave the ASMFC the power to impose its management plans for all ASMFC-managed species on its member states, and authorized the Secretary of Commerce to shut down the relevant fisheries of states which don’t comply.

However, the ASMFC is based on the principle of cooperative management, and there will always be people who don’t cooperate when they believe that they can get more by striking out on their own.  Such folks began to examine the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries act, seeking its Achilles’ heel.

It didn’t take them too long to find it:  Imposing a moratorium under the Act takes time.

Before a moratorium may be imposed, the ASMFC’s relevant species management board must first find a state out of compliance.  Then, the ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Program Policy Board must agree.  Once non-compliance has been established, the ASMFC has ten “working days” to notify the Secretary of Commerce of its non-compliance finding.  The Secretary then has 30 days to determine not only that the state in question is, in fact, out of compliance with the terms of a management plan, but also

“whether the measures that the State has failed to implement and enforce are necessary for the conservation of the fishery in question.”

After that, if the Secretary of Commerce decides that the state has, in fact, failed to comply with a portion of the management plan that is necessary to achieve conservation goals, she would have to impose a moratorium on the relevant state fisheries, but could delay the moratorium's implementation by up to six months.

That long sequence of actions provides an uncooperative state the opportunity to go out of compliance with a fishery management plan, continue to fish at impermissibly high levels for much of the season, and then agree to comply with the plan only at the last minute, after the decision to impose a moratorium has been made.

Depending upon the compliance date (the date by which a state must conform to the most recent version of an ASMFC management plan), the timing of the next management board and Policy Board meetings, whether or not the Secretary of Commerce waits the full 30 days before issuing the moratorium decision, and when any moratorium might become effective, a state might be able to fish for most--even all--of a season pursuant to non-compliant regulations, without incurring any consequences at all.

For an example of how that might work, consider New York’s summer flounder rules in 2004.  At the time, neighboring New Jersey was allocated nearly 40% of all recreational summer flounder landings; New York’s allocation was less than half that amount, even though boats from the two states exploited the same stock of fish and sometimes fished right next to one another.  As a result, the ASMFC’s then-existing management plan forced New York’s regulations to be far more restrictive than those of its neighboring states.

In 2004, the forced disparity between states’ regulations convinced New York to go out of compliance with the ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan.  The process provided in the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act played out, the Secretary of Commerce ultimately found New York out of compliance, and imposed a moratorium beginning—if I remember correctly—at some point in August.  So on July 30, 2004, New York adopted new regulations that complied with the management plan.

By going out of compliance, New York allowed its anglers to fish throughout May, June, and July under more liberal rules, without suffering any consequences at all.

More recently, Virginia’s legislature refused to comply with the ASMFC’s menhaden management plan.  As a result, Virginia was out of compliance for about two years but, like New York, escaped scot-free.

In that case, the issue was the amount of menhaden that Virginia’s industrial menhaden fleet, serving the so-called “reduction fishery,” could remove from the Chesapeake Bay.  

The conflict began in 2017, after the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board voted to reduce the cap on the reduction fleet’s landings in the Chesapeake from 87,216 to 51,000 metric tons.  At the time, Virginia regulators had no authority to manage the menhaden fishery; such management authority was vested solely in the state legislature (a situation which has since changed), and the legislature steadfastly refused to adopt the 51,000 metric ton cap.

At that point, Virginia was out of compliance, but the ASMFC took no immediate action, as the reduction fleet’s landings had been less than 51,000 metric tons in recent years.  A non-compliance motion made during the 2018 season was indefinitely postponed.  But in September 2019, Omega Protein, the only participant in the state's reduction fishery, announced that it had already landed about 65,000 metric tons of menhaden within the Bay, exceeding the new cap on landings.

Virginia was found to be out of compliance at the ASMFC’s fall meeting.  The Secretary of Commerce ultimately agreed, and imposed a moratorium that would become effective before the menhaden season began the following spring. 

In the meantime, the Virginia legislature took action that allowed Virginia to come back into compliance, and rendered the moratorium decision moot.  However, Omega Protein still managed to get away with exceeding the menhaden cap, and suffered no penalty for landing the additional 14,000 metric tons.

And then there's the State of New Jersey.

In 2017, New Jersey adopted summer flounder regulations that not only failed to comply with the management plan, but were so far from compliance that not a single member of the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Management Board was even willing to second New Jersey’s motion for discussion purposes.  The state was duly found out of compliance by both the Management Board and the Policy Board, and such finding forwarded on to the Secretary of Commerce.

There was no question that the state was out of compliance with the management plan; however, at the time, there were close political ties between then-Governor Chris Christie and the new Trump administration, and the state gambled that such ties would lead to Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, finding that the New Jersey rules were good enough to conserve the summer flounder resource, and that compliance was thus not “necessary for the conservation of the fishery.”

And that’s just what happened.  Without even consulting the experts at the ASMFC, at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Greater Atlantic Fisheries Regional Office, or at NMFS’ Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Secretary somehow determined that New Jersey’s rules were OK.

Even if the Secretary’s decision had gone the other way, there was no reason not to gamble, because the worst that might have happened was that the state had to adopt new rules mid-season, after enjoying more relaxed regulations for a while.

Which is why there is real concern that New Jersey may bethinking about going out of compliance with the ASMFC’s recent decision toadopt emergency measures to protect the striped bass fishery.  

While New Jersey no longer has a sympathetic ear sitting atop the Department of Commerce, it does have a long history of seeking self-serving exceptions to the striped bass management measures adopted by the ASMFC.  And it has nothing to lose by going out of compliance right now, fishing under its old rules (which, it should be noted, already include a 28- to 38-inch slot limit, rather than the 28- to 35-inch slot in the management plan) for most of the season, and only coming into compliance when and if the threat of a moratorium looms.

Yes, it would be acting in bad faith if it did so.  But when you talk about New Jersey and fisheries management in the same breath, bad faith is assumed.

The ASMFC should probably come up with a way to discourage such actions.  So long as a state can go out of compliance, at least for a while, and suffer no consequences, bad faith is likely to prevail.  What the ASMFC needs is a means to impose real consequences for a state’s non-compliance decision.

The most logical way to do that would be to require some sort of payback, which would strip any benefits from a failed non-compliance bid.  

That is easy to do in commercial fisheries; for example, when Virginia exceeded the Chesapeake Bay menhaden reduction cap by 14,000 metric tons in 2019, in defiance of the ASMFC’s management plan, and was subsequently found out of compliance, it would have been easy to reduce the 2020 Bay cap from 51,000 to 37,000 metric tons—IF the management plan allowed for such action.  

Unfortunately, the menhaden management plan doesn't call for such paybacks.

Recreational fisheries are a little tougher to deal with, for without a hard quota associated with the management measure, it is difficult to say just how many fish a state might be required to pay back.  

In a perfect world, one might argue that the payback should encompass all landings of the relevant species which occur between the compliance deadline and the date on which the state finally adopted ASMFC-approved measures, effectively making the moratorium retroactive to the first act of non-compliance.

Unfortunately, while such action would certainly deter states from going out of compliance, it is not permitted by current law.  The Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act states that the effective date of any moratorium

“shall be any date within 6 months after declaration of the moratorium [emphasis added],”

which, absent an amendment to the Act, takes the possibility of any retroactive application of a moratorium decision off the table.

Other approaches remain available.

A state that fails to comply with a management plan would presumably land more fish than it would have if it complied.  As an example of how that would work, let's say that State X landed 100,000 fish in Year One, and a subsequent change to the management plan would have reduced that amount by 25%, if State X went out of compliance and caught 900,000 fish in Year Two, it should have to pay back 150,000 fish (900,000 minus the 750,000 it would have caught had it complied) in Year Three.

Folks who follow fisheries management will immediately argue that such a formula is far too simplistic, as there is uncertainty surrounding both the Year One and Year Two landings estimates, and also because it is almost certain that other factors, such as fish availability and angling effort, differed somewhat between the two years.  

Even though such objections are valid, the intention here is not to determine the precise overage, but to provide some basis for a payback, in orter to deter states from gaming the non-compliance process.  Requiring payback at a higher level—say, 125%, or even 150%, of any calculated overage—would undoubtedly prove even more effective.

Some sort of deterrent is certainly needed, even though any effort to impose one would undoubtedly meet with resistance.  A payback of excess landings could probably be included in an amendment to a fishery management plan.  Anything else would require a statutory amendment, and thus be far more difficult to put in place.

But resistance can be overcome, and “difficult” does not mean “impossible.”

In an ideal world, every state would be willing to cooperate in order to achieve a common goal. 

In the real world, unwilling cooperation, achieved through coercion, will probably always be needed to get the job done.




Sunday, May 21, 2023



I’ve noticed a trend over the past two or three years.

“Neighborhood” websites, Facebook groups, and similar sorts of social media are appearing across the Internet.  Although they were originally designed to provide neighbors with a way to share local information —perhaps local politics or school board elections, or where to buy a good pizza or donate a used couch (not to mention providing some advertising revenue to the site’s owner)—it usually doesn’t take long for such sites to be taken over by paranoid residents and conspiracy theorists, who track every man, woman, or child who fails to pick up after their dog, and are certain that teenaged kids can’t walk down the road without being involved in some kind of crime.

If you’re really fortunate, someone might post a photo of an unidentified drunk urinating in their front yard.

There is wailing about the general breakdown of society, and how the world as we know it is coming to an end.

And it’s remarkable to see how many people join in.

There’s just something about conspiracy theories and threats of impending doom that seem to appeal to the human psyche.  People seem to want to believe that they’re victims of some sort of scam.  Politicians, fundraisers, and various charitable organizations have taken advantage of that for years, to invoke knee-jerk reactions and keep folks from thinking rationally about pending issues.  And, of course, to keep them off-balance enough that they’re willing to open up their checkbooks and send in donations without really understanding how that cash will be used.

So yes, we’ve seen it for years, but it still rubs me the wrong way when I see such invitations to unthinking hysteria invade the saltwater sportfishing space.

The latest incursion took the form of an article titled “A Permit in Sheep’s Clothing,” which was written by Ted Venker, a spokesman for the Coastal Conservation Association, and appeared in Sport Fishing magazine.  In it, Venker tries to convince anglers that the National Marine Fisheries Service—long one of CCA’s favorite boogeymen—is plotting to prevent anglers from fishing.  The agency will supposedly accomplish that goal by requiring (in South Atlantic waters),  

“a federal permit for offshore anglers to get a better handle on who is fishing offshore and [will] use that information to determine better harvest and bycatch data.”

Even Venker admits that such proposal is innocuous, and even makes sense—on its surface.  But then he rolls out the conspiracy stuff.

Supposedly, anglers should be wary of the permit proposal, first because the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act already requires that recreational fishermen be licensed, so NMFS should supposedly be able to obtain any data it needs by tweaking the license database, and secondly because individuals within NMFS have allegedly stated that there is a need for recreational “effort rationalization,” which Venker interprets as a need to limit the number of anglers.

There are problems with both such objections, but before getting into that, some background is probably needed.

The call for a federal recreational fishing permit in the South Atlantic was largely a response to problems in the South Atlantic red snapper fishery, which remains overfished, has been experiencing overfishing since the 1960s, and saw spawning stock biomass beaten down to very low levels; the first benchmark stock assessment, conducted in 2007, found a fishing mortality rate 7.7 times the fishing mortality target, and a spawning stock biomass just 3% of its target level.

Such stock assessment led to strict management measures intended to rebuild the red snapper population; managers initially closed the fishery but, as biomass increased, began to allow a limited harvest.  In recent years, directed harvest has proven to be the least of the red snappers’ problems  Because the fish is part of a multi-species snapper/grouper complex that shares the same hard-bottom habitat, red snapper are often caught incidentally by anglers targeting other species when the season for their retention is closed.  Because most of those snapper are caught in deeper water, they often suffer barotrauma and don’t survive after being released.  Thus, regulatory discards of red snapper in other recreational fisheries now constitutes the largest source of fishing mortality.

The recreational and commercial seasons are extremely short—with the recreational season perhaps limited to a single weekend—because anglers kill so many red snapper when the season is closed.

Converting at least some of those dead discards into landings would be desirable; if that can’t be done through other means, it is possible that NMFS might close wide expanses of ocean to all bottom fishing during part of the year, although to date, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has opposed all efforts to do so.

Good data is critical to improving red snapper management.  As Venker correctly noted,

“federal information on recreational discards is probably the poorest-quality dataset in all of federal fisheries management.”

The offshore permit was postulated, in part, to improve the quality of red snapper discard data.

Requiring such permits is hardly a new idea.

When I bought my first marginally offshore-capable boat—a 20-foot Sea Ox center console powered by a single 115 hp Johnson outboard—in 1982, I had to obtain a federal bluefin tuna permit before taking it to the tuna grounds.  That original permit slowly morphed from a bluefin tuna permit that made no distinction between recreational and commercial fishermen into my current Angling Category Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Permit with Shark Endorsement, which I must have not only to fish for bluefin, but for all Atlantic tunas, swordfish, sharks, and billfish. 

A few times each season, I get a letter from NMFS, telling me that I will be contacted by someone who will ask me when I fished and what I caught during a particular two-week period.  When the telephone call comes, I provide the NMFS representative with the requested information, say goodbye, and maybe—or maybe not—get another such call a month or so down the line.  The data provided by anglers all along the coast, throughout the season, provides NMFS with a more comprehensive look at the offshore recreational HMS fishery than it would likely obtain from the Marine Recreational Information Program survey, because the universe of offshore fishermen is relatively small, and they could easily fall through the cracks of a more generalized survey.

While NMFS could, in theory, mine the database of licensed anglers, and perhaps send out a questionnaire to the entire database asking them whether they fish offshore, and what they caught if they do, but that would be an unwieldy, expensive process, and could be badly biased by non-response.  Requiring any anglers pursuing highly migratory species in federal waters to hold a permit, which they can easily obtain merely by filling out an online form and providing a credit card for the processing costs, is a simpler and more efficient way to obtain better data.

NMFS has never given any cause to believe that such permit threatened anglers’ ability to fish offshore.

Similarly, when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council wanted better data on the recreational fishery for golden and blueline tilefish a few years ago, it put a permitting requirement into place.  Tilefish are a seldom-encountered species in the Marine Recreational Information Program, and the only way to get the needed data was to define the universe of tilefish anglers, and require them to report on their fishing activities.  Once again, anyone who wants a permit can get one simply by applying online.

There is no evidence that a federal South Atlantic fishing permit would be any different.  It would weed out the many licensed anglers who focus on red drum, seatrout, snook, and the like, while providing NMFS with a database of those fishermen who actually venture offshore, allowing the agency to direct data inquiries to the folks who are actually participating in the fishery.

Yes, NMFS could probably query every licensed fisherman in the relevant states, in an effort to find out who fishes offshore and might provide the needed information, but that would merely create a massive manpower and financial burden on an agency that is already stretched thin for funds.  Requiring a permit makes for more sense, spreading the manpower burden over the every angler who might be fishing offshore, who could obtain the permit through an automated process while paying their share of the costs of the program.

It's hard to see anything threatening there.

As far as recreational “effort rationalization” goes, anglers have to admit a simple truth:  The fish are under more pressure today than they experienced in the past.  Over the last forty years, recreational effort, measured by the number of trips, has been slowly, but steadily, increasing.

That has certainly been the case in the South Atlantic.  In 1982, anglers in the region made less than 55 million trips, targeting all available species.  That number increased to more than 61 million trips in 1992, around 69 million trips in 2002 and 2012, and nearly 72 million trips in 2022.  Thus, fishing effort increased by more than 30% over the course of four decades (it should be noted that effort varies from year to year, and 2022 doesn’t represent the peak of overall fishing activity; that occurred in 2010, when nearly 80 million trips were taken).

But we’re talking about a federal recreational fishing permit, so overall trips aren’t the ones that matter; such permit would only be required of anglers fishing more than 3 miles offshore.  When we look at South Atlantic effort through that lens, we see the nearly 2.6 million offshore trips taken in 1982 increase just slightly, to less than 2.7 million trips, in 1992, then jump to nearly 3.9 million trips in 2002, before dropping off to 3.3 million trips in 2012 and 3.4 million trips in 2022.  Still, although not the highest number in the time series (which would be the nearly 5.3 million trips—double the 1982 figure—taken in 2018), the 2022 estimate would again represent a greater than 30% increase in recreational fishing effort during the period.

It’s a pretty fair bet that the biomass of South Atlantic reef fish didn’t increase by 30% over the same period. 

We also need to acknowledge that the technical advances in boats, fishing electronics, and fishing tackle have made today’s anglers far more efficient than they were forty years ago.  Fast, long-ranged, more sea-capable boats, equipped with GPS, side-scan and 360-degree electronics, and “spot-lock” technologies that allow boats to hover above a small piece of hard bottom with minimal skill or effort involved, coupled with advances in braided lines that let anglers get away with lighter jigs and sinkers when fishing deep water, mean that anglers are fishing far more effectively today than they did in the ‘80s, when everyone was still getting along with LORAN C, had to learn how to anchor over a piece of productive structure, and were somewhat limited in the depth that they could fish due to relatively large-diameter Dacron and monofilament lines.

At some point, between an increasing number of angler trips and increasingly efficient angling technologies, the need to maintain fish stocks at sustainable levels will probably require some restrictions on recreational effort.  That’s just reality.

However, restrictions on effort do not automatically equate into creating privileged classes of anglers, who can fish (because they hold a permit), and a mass of those who cannot.  Instead, effort restrictions can just as easily be accomplished by imposing closed seasons, which have been well-tested fishery management tools, in both fresh and salt water, for many decades.

The seasons may have to be tweaked a bit, to minimize the sort of discard mortality issues that are plaguing red snapper bycatch, but there is no question that can be done.

In the end, it may be that the data developed by a federal recreational fisheries permit demonstrates that such restrictions aren’t needed.  It’s not inconceivable that, if better data could be obtained from a larger universe of snapper/grouper anglers, we might learn that red snapper discards are less than currently believed, and that the recreational season could be expanded.

But that, of course, is not why we’re seeing the scare tactics hauled out.

Because it is equally—let’s be honest, it’s far more—conceivable that, if NMFS increased the accuracy of its data, not only regarding red snapper releases but also regarding the effort, catch, and landings affecting other members of the snapper/grouper complex, it could discover that the recreational fishery’s footprint is greater than currently believed, and that additional restrictions are needed.  That would certainly be unpalatable, both to CCA and, by extension, to the Center for Sportfishing Policy to which it pays fealty, and which zealously guards the sportfishing industry’s ability to sell copious quantities of boats, bait, and tackle.

Thus, Venker once again seeks to make anglers suspicious of the federal fisheries management process, so that he can call for his favorite nostrum, suggesting

“One way anglers could support the original goal of an offshore permit is to task the states with adapting their own systems—which already exist—to determine the offshore angling universe.  Putting the states in charge and ensuring that any such permit is used only for data collection and education purposes has a much higher likelihood of cooperation and success.”

Such suggestion is, of course, a red herring, as even if data is collected by state managers, federal managers could still use it to place onerous restrictions on anglers, if the data indicated that such restrictions were called for.

Thus, it’s easy to believe that the motivation for opposing a federal permit is far simpler.  Inducing the South Atlantic states to develop their own recreational data programs, similar to programs developed by the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico to monitor their red snapper landings, could easily create the same issue that already arose in the Gulf:  State programs that employ a different methodology than does the MRIP survey, and so undercount (when compared to MRIP) recreational landings, and so creating another opportunity to attack the federal management system and to promote state programs that would allow higher landings.

So if the song seems familiar, it’s because we’ve all seen this show before.

It’s unfortunate, and a little sad, that we’re now seeing scare tactics being used in the South Atlantic, in an effort to manufacture the same sort of long-running, self-serving red snapper crisis that we’ve seen in the Gulf.

But given human nature, and the interests involved, it was probably inevitable.