Sunday, April 18, 2021

2020 RECREATIONAL LANDINGS ESTIMATES PROVE A MIXED BAG: PART I--STRIPED BASS

 Last Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service finally released recreational catch and landings estimates for the 2020 season.

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.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

WILL WE SEE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT LISTING FOR MAKOS?

Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a so-called “90-day finding” in response to a petition brought to list the shortfin mako shark under the Endangered Species Act.  NMFS stated that

“We find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.  Therefore, we are initiating a status review of the species to determine whether listing under the ESA is warranted.”

It’s important to note that the 90-day finding says that “action may be warranted,” not that the shortfin mako will definitely be listed as either “endangered” or “threatened.”  The 90-day finding is merely the first step in a process that will ultimately determine whether a listing is justified; petitions that are clearly without merit would be dismissed at this point.

But the shortfin mako petition has survived that initial step in the process.  NMFS must now conduct a final review to determine whether the shortfin mako should be designated a threatened or endangered species.  Such determination is supposed to be issued within 12 months after NMFS received the listing petition, although as a practical matter it may be delayed if there are inadequate agency resources available to complete the review within that time.

The petition was presented to NMFS on January 25, 2021; it was prepared by Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that describes itself as

“the premier U.S.-based national conservation organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of imperiled species and their habitats in North America.”

While Defenders of Wildlife may be engaging in a bit of puffery in designating itself the “premier” national conservation organization—a title that lies largely in the eyes and mind of the person bestowing such title—there is little doubt that it is a large, capable, and well-funded organization, which is not afraid to engage the federal government on wildlife management issues, even if that means resorting to the courts if the government stakes out a position different from the organization’s own.

Thus, the Defenders of Wildlife’s listing petition needs to be taken seriously, and from all indications, NMFS is doing just that.  As the 90-day finding states,

“Information in the petition and readily available in our files indicates that the primary threat facing the species is overutilization in fisheries worldwide, and we find that listing the shortfin mako as a threatened or endangered species under the ESA may be warranted on this threat alone…

“According to information cited in the petition and readily available in our files, the greatest threat to the shortfin mako shark is historical and ongoing overfishing…Landings in the Atlantic [in 2019] totaled 45,959 [metric tons] (50 percent of global reported catch)…Reported catch, however, is a substantial underestimate of actual catch.  [One recently published paper] estimates that in the Atlantic, only 25 percent of the total catch is reported to [the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas]…In fact, levels of fishing mortality in Northwest Atlantic estimated through fisheries-independent satellite telemetry data were found to be 10 times greater than previous estimates from fisheries dependent data, and 5-18 times greater than those associated with maximum sustainable yield…”

That’s strong language, but it doesn’t mean that NMFS has already decided that the shortfin mako is facing an extinction-level threat.  Yet the fact that NMFS is now recognizing the mako’s very real problems is a refreshing change.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, under the previous administration, the United States, along with the European Union, was one of the few ICCAT members that wanted to maintain a mako fishery in the face of scientific advice strongly suggesting that all shortfin mako landings should be prohibited.  Hopefully, today’s 90-day finding reflects the new administration’s realization that the shortfin mako is in serious trouble, and that might, hopefully, lead to a change of heart during this year’s ICCAT deliberations.

Certainly, such change is needed.  A stock assessment for the shortfin mako, released by ICCAT biologists in 2019, said that

“spawning stock fecundity, defined as the number of pups produced each year, will continue to decline until approximately 2035 even with no fishing, because the cohorts that have been depleted in the past will age into the mature population over the next few decades (the median age at maturity is 21 years)…

“For [two runs of a population model that made slightly different assumptions], a [total allowable catch] of between 800-900 [metric tons], including dead discards, resulted in a >50% probability of…the joint probability of [a fishing mortality rate that is below the rate that results in maximum sustainable yield] and [spawning stock fecundity that is above the fecundity level necessary for the shortfin mako stock to produce maximum sustainable yield] by 2070.  [Another model run], which assumed a low productivity stock-recruitment relationship, showed that only [a total allowable catch] between 0 and 100 [metric tons] (including dead discards) resulted in a >50% probability of [achieving the desired result] by 2070.”

That’s not an encouraging forecast, and it was irresponsible for the United States to insist on maintaining some level of shortfin mako landings after receiving such a report.

I’ve been involved in the recreational shark fishery along the northeast coast since the late 1970s, and have watched mako abundance decline sharply over the years.  There are places where I used to regularly catch between three and six makos on a single trip; today, in the same places, I’m doing well if I catch two or three makos in the course of an entire season.

That, in itself, doesn’t mean that shortfin makos merit an ESA listing, but it certainly suggests that they’re not doing well.

Thus, I look on the 90-day finding with hope. 

On one hand, it would be bad news if NMFS decides that the  shortfin mako's future is so much in doubt that the species is found to be “threatened,” or even “endangered.”  Such a finding would be an indictment of both the ICCAT management process and of the ICCAT member nations, particularly including the United States, that allowed the population to decline that far.

On the other hand, such a listing would represent a long-awaited acknowledgement that the shortfin mako is facing real peril, and that management action is needed to begin rebuilding the stock.  While a listing won’t prevent makos from being killed on the high seas, it would prevent the United States from condoning such killing, and require it to take action that might make things right.

That would, at least, be a start.

For as the old cliché goes, the first step in solving a problem is admitting that it exists.

 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

STAKEHOLDERS TELL THE ATLANTIC STATES MARINE FISHERIES COMMISSION TO REBUILD STRIPED BASS

 

Throughout the month of March, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) held webinar/hearings, seeking stakeholder comments on future striped bass management measures. The comments were focused on issues raised in the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan For Atlantic Striped Bass (PID) which, as its name suggests, was seeking input that could be used to shape a new amendment to the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan.

 

The PID is a wide-ranging document, that addresses nine different issues, including the goals and objectives of the striped bass management plan, the biological reference points that are used to gauge the health of the stock, the triggers for management actions should the biological reference points be exceeded, the timeframe for rebuilding an overfished stock, regional management, conservation equivalency (whether states should be allowed to adopt their own regulations that are different from, but have the same conservation impact as, the management measures adopted by the ASMFC), recreational release mortality, recreational accountability, and commercial quotas.

Stakeholders were also invited to raise any other issues that they felt were relevant to striped bass management.

The ASMFC held hearings on the PID for every coastal state between Maine and Virginia, along with a separate hearing for the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. Just about every hearing saw recreational fishermen turn out in good numbers, and everywhere but New Jersey, where sentiment was split, those fishermen came out strongly in favor of more rigorous striped bass conservation measures.

 

There was very broad support for maintaining the current goal and objectives of the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan. The current goal is “To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fisheries management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock; and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.”

The seven objectives intended to support that goal can be divided into biological and administrative items. The biological objectives would prevent overfishing, maintain a healthy abundance of striped bass, and maintain a broad age structure that includes many older, larger fish, in order to support quality, economically viable commercial, recreational, and for-hire fisheries. The administrative objectives stressed the need for consistent management along the coast, cost-efficient data gathering, and regulations that remain consistent over multiple years.

There was equally broad support for the current biomass and fishing mortality reference points, which are based on striped bass stock structure in 1995 and are calculated to achieve the goal of the management plan. There was almost no recreational support for reducing the biomass target and threshold, in order to increase the fishing mortality rate and resultant landings; some commercial fishermen did support such an approach, while a few members of the for-hire fleet called for management measures that would allow their customers to regularly take striped bass home for food.

Closely related to the initial two questions were the management triggers and rebuilding times. The current triggers require managers to reduce fishing mortality to the mortality target within one year if it rises too high, and to initiate a 10-year plan to rebuild spawning stock biomass to its target level if it ever drops too low. Such triggers and rebuilding timelines were generally, if not universally, favored by those who provided comment.

However, many recreational fishermen, as well as some for-hire operators, criticized the ASMFC for not taking action quickly enough when the spawning stock began to decline. They pointed out its failure to initiate a rebuilding plan in 2014, even after a management trigger which clearly said that it “must” do so was tripped by the 2013 benchmark stock assessment. And they pointed out that, even though the 2019 benchmark stock assessment found the striped bass to be overfished, no 10-year rebuilding plan had yet been put in place.

 

The ASMFC representatives present at the hearings did, at times, try to argue that the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) adopted management measures intended to reduce fishing mortality, and that such reductions represented a “first step” in the rebuilding process. However, they could not deny that the Management Board failed to adopt a rebuilding plan that would restore the stock within a period that “is not to exceed 10 years,” as the management plan requires.

 

The remainder of the issues discussed in the PID were less critical to the overall health of the striped bass stock, but were nonetheless important.

A proposal to investigate the possibility of regional management measures was unpopular, largely because there is no existing, peer-reviewed population model that would support such an approach. Many commenters left the door open to regional management when, and if, such a model was ever developed.

Very few people who spoke at any of the meetings had anything good to say about conservation equivalency, the doctrine that allows states to adopt measures different from those adopted by the Management Board, so long as they are calculated to have a similar conservation benefit.

Much of the opposition arose out of a belief that states abused the conservation equivalency process, and the fact that the Management Board doesn’t follow the dictates of the ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Program Charter, which requires that any conservation equivalent measures “achieve the same quantified level of conservation” as the measures adopted by the Management Board. Such failure was most recently illustrated in February 2020, when the Management Board, in approving states’ questionable conservation-equivalent measures, reduced the probability that Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (Addendum VI) would succeed in reducing fishing mortality to its target level from an already marginal 50% to a mere 42%, rendering such addendum more likely to fail than to achieve its goal.

 

Recreational fishermen were also very opposed to the PID’s focus on recreational release mortality, even though it accounts for 48% of all striped bass fishing mortality. While just about everyone agreed that anglers have a responsibility to handle the bass they catch carefully, and practice good release techniques, they felt that it was inappropriate to single out recreational release mortality as a particularly serious problem. To rebuild the striped bass stock, all forms of fishing mortality, including commercial and recreational landings, must be reduced.

 

Commenters noted that the release mortality rate for striped bass is only 9%, and that Addendum VI’s requirement that circle hooks be used when fishing for bass with bait should cause that rate to fall even lower. They pointed out that recreational release mortality is a large part of overall fishing mortality because anglers voluntarily elect to release over 90% of the bass that they catch, and that managers should recognize that while recreational fishermen do take some striped bass home, the fishery is primarily a catch-and-release fishery, and should be managed accordingly.

Probably the biggest disagreement among anglers at the hearings revolved around the issue of recreational accountability. Some speakers, who came from both the recreational and commercial communities, felt that the striped bass can’t be effectively managed unless the Management Board establishes a hard-poundage recreational harvest limit and holds anglers accountable when that limit is exceeded. Others felt that recreational accountability should be linked to conservation equivalency, with only anglers in states that adopt conservation equivalent regulations held accountable when such regulations fail to accomplish the needed fishing mortality reductions. Still others argued that if anglers abide by all relevant management measures, and nonetheless kill too many bass, it would be inappropriate to hold them accountable because they remained within the bounds of the law.

The one issue that didn’t receive too much discussion in most of the hearings was whether the commercial allocations should be revisited, although allocations were discussed in Delaware, where commercial fishermen are seeking a larger share of the landings. However, as anglers dominated most of the hearings, commercial issues that did not directly impact the health of the striped bass stock were generally given short shrift.

Anglers expressed widespread support for the current goals and objectives of the management plan, as well as the current biological reference points, management triggers, and rebuilding times, and clearly want the Management Board to react quickly when threats to the striped bass arise. Such comments conflicted with what the PID called the three “guiding themes” of the Amendment 7 process: management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency.

While few, if any, commenting stakeholders had any objection to the theme of regulatory consistency, which would militate against the use of conservation equivalency and all of the problems that it generates, management stability and flexibility were viewed as problematic. Maintaining management stability would require the Management Board to take no action, and so perpetuate existing management measures when falling recruitment or rising fishing mortality suggest an impending threat to the stock, while the concept of flexible fishery management would take that inaction one step further, and allow the Management Board to ignore a management trigger that had been tripped by declining abundance and/or increasing fishing mortality.

Comments on the PID will be taken through 5:00 p.m. on April 9. All comments will then be summarized by the ASMFC staff, and provided to the Management Board, which is expected to act on them at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday, May 5, from 1:00 to 4:30 p.m.

 

Hopefully, the stakeholders’ comments will influence the decision.

-----

This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/

 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

GULF RED SNAPPER: GOOD SCIENCE, GOOD DATA, AND PEOPLE WHO DON'T LIKE EITHER ONE

 Last month I wrote about the Great Red Snapper Count

I described how it found a Gulf of Mexico red snapper population that is three times as large as previously believed, and explained why that finding might not translate into significantly larger red snapper quotas this year.

I also noted, both in last month’s essay and in other pieces that I posted in December and in September of 2020, that some folks were trying to bog down current efforts to calibrate state fisheries data so that it can be used in conjunction with the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), because the calibration would lead to tighter regulations and lower red snapper landing—even though, from a scientific and statistical standpoint, such calibration is the right thing to do.

But to organizations which, over the past decade or so, spent lots of their members’ donated money, along with political favors and institutional prestige, trying to find ways to put more dead red snapper in anglers’ coolers, good data and good science aren’t all that attractive if they lead to shorter seasons and lower recreational harvest limits.

Thus, they try to spin the story in a way that makes good science look bad, in order to make bad management measures look like something good.

I expected a resurgence of that sort of thing after an Alabama TV station revealed that the Gulf Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee set 2021 acceptable biological catch for red snapper at 15.4 million pounds—just 300,000 pounds more than the 2020 red snapper ABC (ABC), despite the Great Red Snapper Count’s findings.

That was a very small increase, given that Gulf scientists were willing to raise the 2021 Overfishing Limit (OFL)—the level of landings that, in theory, would produce maximum sustainable yield--to 26.6 million pounds, more than 11 million pounds above the 2020 OFL.  

The National Marine Fisheries Services’ guidelines for compliance with National Standard 1, which prohibits overfishing and requires fisheries to be managed for optimum yield, state that

“Acceptable biological catch (ABC) is a level of a stock or stock complex’s annual catch, which is based on an ABC control rule that accounts for the scientific uncertainty in the estimate of [the Overfishing Limit], any other scientific uncertainty, and the [relevant regional fishery management] Council’s risk policy.  [emphasis added]”

In 2020, the Gulf Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) felt comfortable setting the ABC at 15.1 million pounds, only 400,000 pounds below the OFL, suggesting that they didn’t think that there was all that much scientific uncertainty clouding their calculations.  But in 2021, after receiving the results of the Great Red Snapper Count, the SSC was willing to raise the OFL by about 70 percent, to 26.6 million pounds, but despite that, was only willing to raise the ABC by about 2 percent. 

The very big difference between the 2021 OFL and ABC signals that there is a lot of scientific uncertainty surrounding the new OFL, probably because the Count data was released so recently that there has not been time to fully incorporate it into the stock assessment model.  Under such circumstances, one would expect the SSC to act like prudent professionals, and not raise the ABC prematurely; such increase can always be made next season, when and if their analysis shows that it is safe to do so.

Such a cautious approach is very much in accord with the statement of Dr. Gregory Stunz, the lead researcher on the Great Red Snapper Count project, who said, upon its completion,

“This is just the beginning of future assessment meetings and activities with managing agencies, Scientific and Statistical Committees, the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.  These activities will facilitate direct incorporation of these data into the management process.”

Unfortunately, just as biologists can generally be relied upon to do the right thing, and approach new data with caution and not take actions that might put the red snapper stock at risk, one can generally rely upon the various fishing tackle industry, boating industry, and anglers’ rights groups involved in Gulf snapper issues to do the wrong thing, and call out for hasty decisions, provided that they involve the kind of haste that puts more fish in some members’ coolers and more money in other members’ bank accounts, even if that creates additional risks to the stock. 

That’s why it wasn’t surprising to read a recent op-ed in The [Biloxi, MS] Sun Herald, written by Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, which criticized any efforts to hold anglers in Alabama and Mississippi accountable for substantially exceeding their 2020 red snapper allocations, saying

“The risk of overfishing may be at an all-time low.  Based on the Great Red Snapper Count, Gulf Coast anglers are due an increase in quota.  Not a decrease.”

In making those statements Angers, who as far as I know does not hold even a baccalaureate degree in fisheries science—or any other field of biology—seemed far more certain about the implications of the Count’s findings than the biologists on the SSC.

Perhaps there’s some truth in the old saying about fools rushing in…

But maybe it's just a story of red snapper anglers in the Gulf getting just what they asked for, and then not being happy with how things worked out. 

For many years, such anglers complained that federal estimates of red snapper landings both overestimated anglers’ harvest, and took so long to prepare that they forced red snapper season to end sooner than they needed to.  So they urged the states to come up with their own landings estimates.

A number of states did just that, working with NMFS to develop state programs that would estimate recreational landings in a more timely fashion than does MRIP, and would merit certification as a part of MRIP.  Alabama and Mississippi were among the states that put such programs in place.

Although the state programs were certified as supplements to MRIP, they each used a slightly different methodology, and thus yield somewhat different landings estimates even if fed the same data.  In order to make all of the state programs’ estimates compatible with MRIP, the state data had to be converted into a sort  of “common currency.”  The need to do such calibration has been recognized since at least the fall of 2018, when it was discussed at a workshop on estimating the Gulf recreational red snapper catch.

In June 2020, it became clear that if state landings estimates were calibrated to work with MRIP, some Gulf states, most notably Alabama and Mississippi, would would receive substantially smaller 2020 recreational red snapper quotas than they would if the uncalibrated state estimates were used.

  The Gulf Council was asked to do a preliminary calibration of state and MRIP data, because if the uncalibrated state data was used, overfishing would almost certainly occur.  NMFS acknowledged that such concerns were legitimate, and even provided the states with preliminary figures that could be used, when setting season lengths, to avoid such overharvest.

The states chose not to adopt the NMFS recommendations.

Thus, the table was set. 

Since November 2018, everyone involved with Gulf red snapper management has known that, in order to properly incorporate the states’ recreational red snapper landings estimates into the Gulf-wide management process, such estimates must be calibrated to work within MRIP.  

And since last June, everyone has also known that, if uncalibrated state data was used to set 2020 recreational red snapper regulations, both Alabama and Mississippi would almost certainly badly overfish their state allocations. 

But, somehow, Angers doesn’t seem to have gotten the message.

While he, unlike the biologists on the SSC, appears more than willing to hastily embrace the weeks-old Great Red Snapper Count data, and assure all and sundry that it justifies a substantial quota increase, he doesn’t seem to understand the need for calibrating the state landings data before it can be used to manage the resource.  

Instead, he argues that there is

“no federal deadline for calibration,”

and so neither the Gulf Council nor NMFS should try to convert state data into the required “common currency.”

He apparently takes that position because

“If NOAA Fisheries rushes the council to calibrate the data in April, they will likely reduce the private recreational red snapper quota by half or more in Mississippi and Alabama for years.  Therefore when the data is calibrated, it punishes these two states the most...

“With summer quickly approaching and families looking to make vacation plans around red snapper seasons, now is not the time to rush this management action…”

Angers goes on to say that

“The council should take its time to make the most informed decision using the best available science,”

which is somewhat ironic, given that there is no serious doubt that the calibrated data would reflect the best available science, would be statistically valid, and would improve red snapper management.  But since such calibration would also reduce the 2021 recreational quota, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama, and perhaps impact the sales of some Center members, in that case science doesn’t seem to matter—recalibration shouldn’t be done.

What Angers and the Center seem to be saying is that NMFS and the Gulf Council should be quick to recognize data, such as the results from the Great Red Snapper Count, if such data might lead to an increased quota or prevent a reduction in a state allocation.

But both NMFS and the Council should be slow to calibrate state landings data because such calibration could lead to reduced state allocations, and hold anglers accountable (Angers prefers the term “punish”) for exceeding allocations last year.

At that point, it becomes obvious that from Angers' and the Center's viewpoint, the discussion isn’t really about good science, or good data, at all.

It’s just about killing more fish.

And when that’s all that you want, good science and good data just get in the way.

 

 

Monday, April 5, 2021

STRIPED BASS: WHAT FISHERIES MANAGERS STILL DON'T UNDERSTAND

 I was finishing up my comments on the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, when one of the questions asked in the “Recreational Release Mortality” section stopped me cold.

It was

“Should management focus on reducing effort in the fisher in order to reduce the number of striped bass caught and released?”

I read that question and wondered, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

The fact that the question was even asked demonstrates how badly managers misunderstand the recreational striped bass fishery.

During the years 2015-2019, anglers released almost 92 percent of all striped bass caught.  The percentage has remained very consistent through the years, ranging from a low of 89.26 percent in 2015 to a high of 93.33 percent in 2018.  Out of the more than 170 million bass caught during that five-year period, nearly 157 million were returned to the water. 

While many of those released fish were undersized, and could not be legally retained, many others were voluntarily released because, for the most part, striped bass anglers primarily seeking recreation, not food, when they spend time on the water, although most probably do keep a bass from time to time.

Right now, the best available science suggests that about 9 percent of all released bass die.  That’s a relatively low release mortality rate, which compares very favorably with release mortality rates of 10 percent for summer flounder, and 15 percent for scup, black sea bass, and bluefish.

Still, 9 percent of the 157,000,000 bass released over the course of five years isn’t a trivial number.  It’s not surprising that recreational release mortality accounts for nearly half of all striped bass fishing mortality.  That’s what you’d expect in a fishery that’s prosecuted primarily for catch-and-release, not catch-and-kill.

But fishery managers don’t see it that way.  The so-called “Work Group” report that preceded the Public Information Document stated that

“Multiple members of the [work group] indicated that recreational dead discards may be the single most important issue at this time, and addressing (or reducing discards) is the most important action that can be taken going forward.  Many [work group] members pointed to the fact that recreational discards accounted for just under 50% of the fishing mortality as a basis for the critical need to address this issue.  Others noted that, particularly in states with primarily catch and release fisheries, the Board is running out of ways to control removals in the fishery.”

Looking at the issue objectively, those comments just don’t make sense.

But they do reflect an unfortunate bias that still prevails among marine fisheries managers.  Too many of them are still operating within an outdated paradigm that can be summed up as “Dead fish in a cooler are good.  Dead fish in the water are bad.  Our job is to keep enough live fish in the water to put lots of dead fish in coolers.”

As I mentioned in a recent blog, things like maximizing recreational opportunity, and by so doing maximizing the economic benefits from the fishery, just don’t cross their minds.

It’s all about putting dead fish in the coolers.

Think about it.  Have you ever heard a fishery manager say that there is a “critical need” to address landings because they constituted “just under 50% of the fishing mortality.”  In the striped bass fishery,  combined recreational and commercial landings account for exactly 50 percent of fishing mortality (recreational landings at 42 percent, commercial landings at 8 percent), but not a single manager is talking about “the critical need to address this issue,” because they value dead fish in a cooler.  Recreational release mortality is being singled out as the problem, because they can’t comprehend that some additional dead fish in the water might be the price that needs to be paid in order to appropriately manage the striped bass fishery.

Yet the real problem is fishing mortality from all sources, not just recreational releases.  As I’ve written many times before, dead is dead.  A bass that dies after being released is no deader, and has no more adverse impact on the stock, as a bass that slowly succumbs to asphyxiation while lying on ice in a cooler.

Yet marine fisheries managers, particularly in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, remain focused on landings as the gold standard of fisheries management.  That makes sense when managing a primarily commercial fishery, or a recreational fishery prosecuted primarily for food, such as summer flounder, bjut it makes no sense at all when managing a recreational sport fishery such as striped bass.

In such fisheries, anglers’ primary motivation is to encounter, and hopefully catch, fish on a regular basis, even if the great majority—but not all—of those fish end up being released.

Such fisheries should be managed for abundance.  Abundance drives angler effort, and increased effort results in increased recreational opportunity, and the increased economic benefits that result. 

When a fishery is managed for abundance rather than for landings, recreational release mortality is likely to rise, but so long as overall fishing mortality stays at or below target, that’s not a problem.

However, higher levels of release mortality do mean that restrictions on landings must be tightened to keep overall fishing mortality under control.  And for traditional marine fisheries managers, who worship at the mid-20th Century altar of maximum sustainable yield, the idea of intentionally managing in a way that increases release mortality and leads to lower landings is an inconceivable heresy.

In that regard, marine fisheries managers in the northeast and mid-Atlantic are at least 50 years behind the times.

Both in freshwater fisheries and in saltwater fisheries elsewhere on the coast, no-kill regulations (e.g., many “quality” trout waters, Florida tarpon and bonefish) and restrictive regulations that promote catch-and-release angling (muskellunge, Alaska for-hire halibut, Florida snook and permit) are frequently seen. 

But on the East Coast, fisheries managers remain laser-focused on maintaining landings.  Thus, the PID’s baseless complaint that “in states with primarily catch and release fisheries, the Board is running out of ways to control removals in the fishery.”

After all, if the state’s striped bass fishery is primarily catch and release, managers can adopt very restrictive restrictions on landings without significantly disrupting that fishery.  Some for-hire operators might be unhappy with more landings restrictions, but given that, using the same 2015-2019 timeframe used above, the for-hire fleet only accounted for a little over 2 percent of all striped bass trips (low of 1.60 percent in 2016, high of 2.73 percent in 2017), such concerns flow from a very small sector of the recreational striped bass fishery; management should reflect how the resource is used by the great majority of anglers.

Some managers have reportedly asked what more they can do when the bag limit has already been reduced to one fish.  The answer to that question is simple:  More restrictive size limits, and shorter seasons. 

Folks who manage other recreational sport fisheries, in both fresh and salt water, have already figured that out. 

For example, Wisconsin has decided to

“Manage muskellunge for a variety of unique fishing opportunities (including trophy, quality action, and harvest) within balanced aquatic communities,”

by maintaining

“A.  Trophy Fisheries—Manage Class A1 waters to increase the catch of 45” and larger muskellunge, with some fish 50” and larger.

B.  Action Fisheries—Manage Class A2 waters for a catch rate of 1 muskellunge (any size) per 25 hours of muskellunge angling.

C.  Improve Existing Fisheries—Rehabilitate former muskellunge waters that have experienced substantial declines in the muskellunge population; improve Class B and C fisheries.”

Wisconsin also stresses the need for education that complements its muskellunge management program, and is taking steps to

“Provide information and technical assistance to our partners, anglers, and lakeshore property owners.  Continue to emphasize the value of catch and release.  Clarify the role that muskellunge play within aquatic ecosystems, including interactions with other species.  [emphasis added]”

The muskellunge’s role in freshwater fisheries is roughly analogous to the striped bass’ role on the coast.  Both fish are apex predators in their ecosystem, and among the largest fish encountered by anglers in the waters where they swim.  Both also support what might be called “prestige” recreational fisheries; anglers who catch a large striped bass, like those who catch a large muskellunge, tend to be proud of their accomplishment, and often appear in the pages of local outdoor publications.

But the management is so much different.

In Wisconsin, fishery managers recognize what’s important to muskellunge fishermen.  They may write about managing for “trophy, quality action, and harvest,” but the state’s natural (i.e., non-stocked, “Class A”) waters are being managed primarily for either “trophy” or “action” fisheries; regulations permit harvest in such waters, but such harvest is subordinate to the other two management goals. 

Like striped bass, muskellunge enjoy very low release mortality rates when caught on artificial lures and properly handled prior to release, although research shows that they suffer very high levels of delayed mortality when caught on live bait, where gut-hooking is often an issue.  While Wisconsin fishery managers seek to encourage anglers catch and release muskellunge, the ASMFC, which clearly doesn’t recognize what’s important to most striped bass anglers, would consider limiting catch-and-release, so that more bass could be killed and brought home.

The ASMFC just doesn’t understand how to manage a truly recreational fishery.

In salt water, Florida’s snook regulations may provide the best example of how managers should address such fisheries.  Snook fishing is, in many ways, like fishing for striped bass—you can catch them in inlets and around structure such as bridges and piers, cast to shorelines (typically mangroves instead of sod banks or stone), fish for them in the surf, etc. 

Not to mention the fact that snook taste at least as good as striped bass do.

Like striped bass, snook are managed with a 1-fish bag (although on a for-hire boat, neither captain nor crew may retain a fish) and a slot limit.  But, where the striped bass slot includes fish falling between 28 and 35-inches, the snook slot is narrower, 28 to 32 inches on the Atlantic coast and 28 to 33 inches on the west coast and Everglades.  The snook fishing season is also closed from December 15-January 31 and June 1-August 31 on the Atlantic side, and December 1-February 28 (or 29) and May 1-August 31 in the Gulf of Mexico/Everglades to further protect the fish (in recent years, parts of the Gulf have been completely closed due to the effects of red tide on the local snook population).

As with striped bass, recreational release mortality makes a contribution to overall snook fishing mortality.  The State of Florida believes that such release mortality makes up no less than 43 percent, and very probably about 50 percent, of all snook fishing mortality.  That falls right into line with release mortality’s 48 percent contribution to striped bass fishing mortality.

But Florida, unlike the ASMFC, isn’t even talking about reducing catch-and-release fishing effort in order to increase snook landings.  Instead, it acknowledges the recreational and economic value of what is primarily a catch-and-release fishery (one state study showing that about 97 percent of fish caught on the Gulf coast were returned to the water), and crafts its snook regulations to take account of both landings and release mortality—even if that means closing the fishery during the height of the winter tourist season, when light-tackle guides and other for-hire operators would undoubtedly profit from an open season.

Because that’s how a recreational sport fishery ought to be managed:  For abundance, for maximum recreational opportunity, and maximum recreational effort.

Landings are, at best, a secondary consideration.

East Coast managers need to figure that out, for if they don’t, they’ll get striped bass management wrong.

Again.

 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

STRIPED BASS MANAGEMENT: WE ARE NOT APRIL'S FOOLS

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has recently completed its full round of hearings on the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan For Atlantic Striped Bass.  

I listened in on one hearing, and heard quite a bit of feedback on most of the others.  The good news is that, as far as I can tell, anglers were generally united on the need to maintain current biological reference points, promptly rebuild the striped bass stock, and manage the stock for abundance, not yield.

The only place that deviated a bit from that norm was New Jersey, where angling sentiment was apparently split, with some calling out for a healthy, rebuilt stock, while others said that the bass was doing just fine, despite the findings of the most recent, peer-reviewed stock assessment’s findings that striped bass were overfished.  But down in New Jersey, where a substantial part of the recreational fishing community rarely, if ever, lets good science get in the way of uninformed opinion, you expect that sort of thing.

What I also heard, and understand occurred at just about every state’s hearing, was the ASMFC coming under a lot of criticism for its failure to quickly respond to problems with the striped bass stock, its failure to implement seemingly mandatory provisions of its own striped bass management plan, and its general failure to conserve, rebuild, and maintain coastal fish stocks.

At the New York hearing, the criticism was harsh enough that I felt sorry for the ASMFC staffers who were catching the brunt of it.  Such staffers are generally dedicated and capable people who try to do the right thing, but they have relatively little impact on the ASMFC’s fishery management actions.  That responsibility falls on the various species management boards, who are dominated by legislative appointees, governors’ appointees, and their proxies, people who, for the most part, have no formal fisheries training, often have little regard for good science, and far too often have a financial or other interest in the fisheries that they’re supposed to regulate.

So when concerned anglers take shots at ASMFC staff, they’re often shooting at folks who are more-or-less on their side, something that's often not true in the case of the management boards, who make all the decisions and control whaat the staff is tasked to do.

We heard staff gently referring to that at the New York hearing when, after being asked why the ASMFC took a particular action, one said something like “We don’t know what’s in the Commissioners’ minds.”

At the same time, the staff does work for the ASMFC, and can get understandably defensive when the criticism begins.  And between what I heard at the New York hearing, and what I understand was said elsewhere, they did say a few things that served more to obscure, rather than to reveal, the truth.

In particular, I understand that, at the Rhode Island hearing, an ASMFC rep denied that the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board ignored management triggers in its own management plan, because it adopted Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan, which was intended to reduce fishing mortality; at the New York hearing, I heard a staffer say that the Management Board had acted to reduce fishing mortality, which was a “first step” in rebuilding the stock.

Such statements are at odds with the plain language of the management plan.

There are four relevant management triggers in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (a fifth management trigger, related to recruitment, is not relevant here).  Those triggers are:

“1)  If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded in any year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.

2)  If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2.

3)  If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.

4)  If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2.  [emphasis added]”

Section 2.6.2 of Amendment 6, referenced in Management Triggers 2 and 4, reads

“If at anytime the Atlantic striped bass population is declared overfished and rebuilding needs to occur, the Management Board will determine the rebuilding schedule at that time.  The only limitation imposed under Amendment 6 is that the rebuilding schedule is not to exceed 10 years.  [emphasis added]”

Thus, when the Management Board adopted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan in 2014, which reduced fishing mortality to the target level, and when it adopted Addendum VI in 2019, it addressed Management Triggers 1 and 3, which are meant to address excessive levels of fishing mortality (although one could argue that, due to excessively generous conservation equivalencymeasures creating a 58 percent probability that Addendum VI will fail to reducefishing mortality to target, the requirements of Management Trigger 1 weren’t fulfilled, and also argue that, because the Management Board recognized that its decision to allow the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions to reduce their fishing mortality by only 20.5 percent, instead of 25 percent, in Addendum VI would mean that reducing fishing mortality to target would take more than one year, the strict requirements of Management Trigger 3 wasn’t really met either, even though it ultimately turned out that fishing mortality was slightly below target in 2015).

However, Addendum IV failed to address Management Trigger 4, which had been tripped by the 2013 benchmark stock assessment, and Addendum VI failed to address Management Trigger 2, which was tripped when the 2018 benchmarkassessment found the stock to be overfished.

Those failures were not mere oversights.  The record clearly shows that the Management Board was fully aware of its rebuilding obligations in both 2014 and 2019, but chose to ignore them.

At the August 2014 Management Board, Michael Waine, who was then the ASMFC’s Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for striped bass, advised the Management Board that

“Management Trigger 2 [sic] in Amendment 6 says that you need to rebuild the [spawning stock biomass] back to its target over a specified timeframe that should not exceed ten years.  I think there is sort of a combination of things happening.  The board is acting to reduce [fishing mortality].  Through that action we see the projections showing that [spawning stock biomass] will start increasing toward its target, but we’re uncomfortable with projecting out far enough to tell you when it will reach its target because the further on the projection we go the more uncertainty that is involved.  Therefore, I think the trend is to get back toward the target, but we can’t tell you how quickly that will happen.”

I’ll quickly pass over the propriety—or lack thereof—of an ASMFC staffer encouraging the Management Board to ignore a provision of its own management plan.  But even placing that issue aside, Waine's comments, and the Management Board’s willingness to accept them, were indefensible.  

It wasn’t the job of the ASMFC staff to “tell you when [spawning stock biomass] will reach its target;” their job was to tell the Management Board what it would take to rebuild the stock within 10 years, as the management plan required, and it was the Management Board’s job to put those measures in place.  The “must” language of Management Trigger 4 clearly mandates such action.

Yes, uncertainty increases over time, and there would be substantial uncertainty surrounding a 10-year rebuilding timeframe, but there are also ways to manage uncertainty that were available to the Management Board.  After all, federal fisheries managers have been legally obligated to address 10-year rebuilding timelines for twenty-plus years, and have generally dealt with the related uncertainty pretty well.

Increasing the probability of success is one way to start. 

Instead of taking the ASMFC’s typical approach, and adopting rebuilding measures with a mere 50 percent probability of success (and the concurrent 50 percent probability of failure), measures skewed toward the success side of the bell curve, with perhaps a 60 or 65 percent probability of achieving their goal, could have been adopted.  Then, after the usual mid-course stock assessment update, or even a benchmark assessment after five or so years, the Management Board would have had an opportunity to adopt additional measures if the stock had veered from the rebuilding track.  It might have required some unpopular actions, but it could have be done.

Rebuilding the stock within ten years was a very realistic objective.

So yes, the Management Board clearly was aware of, and intentionally ignored, a management trigger in 2014.

In 2019, the situation was a little different, but the result was the same.

At the August 2019 Management Board meeting, Max Appelman, who served as fishery management plan coordinator at that time, did his job, reminding the Management Board that

“the clock is sort of ticking, and the ten year clock [to rebuild the stock pursuant to Management Trigger 2] began in May when the information [that the stock was overfished] was presented to the Board.”

Later on in the meeting, in response to another question, he repeated that

“The ten year timeframe, the clock is ticking on that yes.”

Given those comments, the Management Board clearly knew about Management Trigger 2, and what that trigger required that it to do.  So once again, the record shows that the choice to ignore the 10-year rebuilding deadline was consciously and intentionally made.

And no, adopting Addendum VI, and its inadequate measures to return fishing mortality to the target level, does not constitute compliance with Management Trigger 2.  Given the most favorable assumptions—that is, prior to the approval of conservation equivalency measures that increased likely fishing mortality under Addendum VI—the Addendum would probably have resulted in the stock being rebuilt around 2033, or 14 years after Addendum VI was adopted.

Again, that’s not good enough.  The management plan requires rebuilding within ten years.  Even though I’ve been out of first grade for a very long time, I think I was taught, back then, that 14 is bigger than 10, and I don’t believe that’s changed in the intervening 60 years.

So when the management plan said that rebuilding times are “not to exceed 10 years,” a 10-year rebuilding plan would be OK.  A 7-year or 5-year rebuilding plan would be OK, too.  But 14 years—not to mention a situation where “the trend is to get back toward the target, but we can’t tell you how quickly that will happen,” does not make the grade.

Despite what was said at some meetings, the Management Board certainly did ignore two management triggers, and the striped bass has suffered as a result.  I’m a little disappointed that folks aren’t willing to admit that plain truth.

We do know how to read, so there’s little upside in saying something so easily disproved.

We can read the unambiguous language of the management plan, including the clearly-worded management triggers in Amendment 6.

We cam read words such as “must” and phrases such as “not to exceed 10 years,” and know what they mean.

And we can read the Proceedings of Management Board meetings, and so know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the Management Board understood its obligations under Management Triggers 2 and 4, and willfully chose to ignore them.

Our words stand as fact.  The Management Board did not do its job.  We are not April’s fools.