Sunday, October 24, 2021

MORE BAD NEWS FOR STRIPED BASS

Fishermen concerned about the future of Atlantic striped bass now have more reason to worry: On October 15, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources released the results of its 2021 juvenile abundance survey, which reported a poor striped bass spawn for the third year in a row.

 

The juvenile abundance index (JAI) for 2021 is 3.2, compared to a long-term average of 11.4. The JAIs for 2019 and 2020 were 3.4 and 2.5, respectively.

Maryland’s juvenile striped bass abundance survey measures the production of young-of-the-year striped bass by sampling 22 established locations within the Chesapeake Bay, and producing an index reflecting the number of young-of-the-year bass caught in each sample. The survey, which has been performed annually since 1954, provides the longest continuous set of striped bass recruitment data available anywhere, and is probably the best single indicator of future striped bass abundance.

 

The recent JAI values are troubling because the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) is obligated to rebuild the striped bass stock by 2029, but it isn’t clear that they have the building blocks—that is, enough younger striped bass—needed to do so. That was acknowledged by Massachusetts fishery manager Michael Armstrong at the May 2021 Management Board meeting when he said, “we’ve got five-year classes locked and loaded, with nothing behind 2014 [sic]. We have the 2015-year class, and 2014 was not bad out of the Hudson. That is all we’ve got to rebuild with…We have to start doing draconian things to get this stock back.”

 

Despite such need for action, the Management Board continues to move forward slowly. It is considering measures to protect the 2015 year class, but such measures will probably not be in place until 2023. In the meantime, immature bass from the 2017 and 2018 year classes are being removed from the stock in the Chesapeake Bay, while the population of fish from the 2014 and 2015 year classes is being whittled down all along the coast. Given the poor 2021 JAI, it is very possible that striped bass population in October 2021 is already smaller than it was when Mr. Armstrong made his comments in May.

To understand the current threat facing the fishery, it’s probably necessary to take a deeper look at striped bass recruitment.

The coastal migratory stock of striped bass spawns in the Hudson River, Delaware River, Chesapeake Bay, and the Albemarle and Roanoke rivers of North Carolina. However, as the 2019 striped bass stock assessment reveals, “Tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, most notably the Potomac River, and also the James, York, and most of the smaller rivers on the eastern shore of Maryland, are collectively considered the major spawning grounds of striped bass.” Thus, the Maryland JAI is a particularly important bellwether for striped bass abundance; the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team has stated that “the Maryland JAI is closely correlated to the coastwide age-1 estimates from the stock assessment model.”

 

Since the turn of this century, four large year classes of striped bass have been produced in the Chesapeake Bay: 2001 (JAI=50.75), 2003 (JAI=25.75), 2011 (JAI=34.58), and 2015 (JAI=24.20). Of those four, the 2001s and 2003s, due to their age and years of harvest, now form a very small and steadily declining segment of the population. And, although the 2011 JAI was nearly 50% higher than the JAI for 2015, the number of 2015s that survived to age 1 was significantly greater.

 

Thus, the 2015 year class must be the focus of any rebuilding effort.

Over the past ten years, with the exception of 2015, striped bass recruitment in the Chesapeake Bay has been disappointing. The decade began with a 2012 JAI of 0.89, the lowest ever recorded in the history of the Maryland survey. Recent recruitment has proven so poor that the JAI’s long-term average has dropped from 11.9 in 2015 to 11.4 today.

 

Over the entire ten-year period between 2012 and 2021, the average JAI was 8.12, which is substantially below the long-term average. What is more troubling is that the average JAI for the past decade is well below the JAI average of 10.85 for the decade between 1967 and 1976, which immediately preceded the stock collapse of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Fortunately, the patterns of the past do not dictate the striped bass’ future. Whether the stock rebuilds, languishes near current levels, or declines into collapse depends not on what happened a half-century ago, but on what happens over the next few years, both in the spawning rivers and at meetings of the Management Board.

Striped bass recruitment is heavily dependent upon environmental conditions in the spawning rivers. When a cold winter is followed by a wet spring, and spawning bass experience cool water temperatures and high freshwater flows, recruitment is usually high; warm winters followed by dry springs lead to unsuccessful spawns. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, spawning conditions were uniformly poor; between 1975 and 1988, the JAI never rose above 8.45 in any year, and averaged just 4.35.

Recent environmental conditions in the Maryland spawning rivers have also been unfavorable for striped bass recruitment, and no one can predict when favorable conditions will next occur. When the striped bass stock began its collapse fifty years ago, conditions remained unfavorable for nearly two decades; after a large year class (JAI=30.52) emerged in 1970, it took 19 years before another large year class (JAI=25.20) was produced in 1989.

Yet, while the weather remains beyond human control, it is Management Board action—or inaction—that will determine whether the striped bass spawning stock is given the protections it needs to endure until favorable spawning conditions recur, or whether it will be allowed to dwindle and perhaps collapse in the face of an extended period of low recruitment.

Prior to, and even during, the stock collapse of the 1970s and early 1980s, the striped bass fishery was effectively unregulated. No single entity had the authority to implement coastwide management measures, and the individual states seemed more concerned with maintaining a level playing field for their own fishermen than they were in rebuilding the overfished stock.

There were no commercial quotas, and few states imposed bag limits on anglers. The size limit, typically 16 inches fork length on the coast, and smaller in the Chesapeake Bay, was dictated by market demand rather than by science. Although a very few “gamefish states” prohibited the sale of striped bass, in most places, there was no significant distinction between commercial and recreational fishermen; fish could be sold by anyone, with no commercial license required. Under such circumstances, few anglers released their striped bass; fish that they didn’t intend to eat themselves were sold to local restaurants and markets.

Today, the striped bass fishery is regulated by the Management Board which, in 1984, was empowered by Congress to develop effective coastwide management measures that must be adopted by all of the states between North Carolina and Maine. The problem is no longer a lack of coastwide regulation, but a Management Board that functions reasonably well while the stock remains healthy, but has proven reluctant to act proactively in order to avert a crisis and instead waits for a crisis to occur before taking action.

 

Such crisis has now arrived.

The striped bass stock is already overfished, and appears to be entering a period of low recruitment. Four of the last six years have seen JAIs that were lower than the average JAI for the years when the stock had collapsed, and it is impossible to predict when, or even if, things will turn around.

It is possible that the Chesapeake Bay will produce a big year class in 2022; however, given that North America is heading into another La NiƱa cycle, which is expected to usher in another warmer-than-usual winter into the Mid-Atlantic region, it is far more likely that the 2022 JAI will again reflect poor spawning success.


Thus, the fate of the striped bass is in the Management Board’s hands.


It can take a precautionary stance, assume continuing low recruitment, and adopt measures to substantially reduce fishing mortality and conserve the spawning stock until environmental conditions improve. Or, it can continue on its current path, assume that recruitment will return to more typical levels and, by doing nothing, risk driving the stock into a second collapse.


Whatever it chooses to do, the decision, and any resulting credit or blame, sits squarely on the Management Board’s shoulders. Stakeholders can only hope that it proves up to its task.

 

-----

NOTE:  This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, on October 18, 2021.  “From the Waterfront” can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/

Since it appeared there, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board met on October 20, and directed the Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development team to develop a formal rebuilding plan that will restore the spawning stock biomass to its target level no later than 2019, and to incorporate low recruitment scenarios into such plan.  While it is not certain how the Management Board will receive such plan when it is presented to them at their next meeting, which is scheduled to occur in January 2023, at this moment, it appears that the Management Board has taken an important step toward addressing both the overfished status of the stock and the current below average recruitment.  Hopefully, the Management Board will follow up on its initial action, and take meaningful action to fully restore the striped bass population.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

ASMFC STRIPED BASS MEETING ENDS ON A POSITIVE NOTE

I have to admit that I dreaded sitting in on the October 20 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board.

The focus of the meeting was an effort to finalize the Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  Amendment 7 is a big deal because, when it is finished, it could well determine how bass are managed for the next decade or two.  If the meeting went as expected, it would end with the Management Board finalizing the Draft Amendment, and sending it out for public review and comment.

The way the process works is that the Management Board instructs the Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team to meet (which they did multiple times) and, working with the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee, put together a draft amendment.  Once that is done, the Management Board meets to review the draft, and make whatever changes they deem needed before the draft amendment is finally approved and released for comment.

I dreaded the meeting because the ASMFC’s process of developing an amendment to a management plan can often resemble the Paris Peace Talks during the Viet Nam War, where it took ten weeks just to decide on the shape of the table where negotiations would take place.  And like many diplomatic efforts, the amendment process usually features a cast of predictable players who play their predictable roles; I can usually script out the general lines of what many people will say before the meeting convenes.

And when that sort of thing goes on for nearly six hours, sitting through it can get a little painful.

But the October Management Board meeting broke the usual mold, and did so in a good and unexpected way.

It started out with a debate on the triggers for management action, where everyone generally played their parts (later I’ll describe what went on).   But just as the Board was ready to move on to its next topic, Megan Ware, a fishery manager from Maine, asked to address the Board’s Chair. 

And just then, the nature of the meeting was changed, for Ms. Ware made the motion that many of us had been waiting for the past seven years.

“Move to consider a formal rebuilding plan for striped bass in Amendment 7 using methods described under ‘Management Response to Recruitment Trigger’.  Option 1 would be status quo F-target.  Option 2 would establish a F(rebuild) calculated as the F value projected to achieve SSB(rebuild) by 2029 under the assumption of the lower recruitment regime.”

The motion was seconded by New York’s legislative proxy, Capt. John McMurray.  With that motion, the tenor of the Draft Amendment was changed.

Up until then, the Amendment 7 discussion centered on management tools.  What events should trigger a management action?  How can managers protect the 2015s?  How can recreational release mortality be reduced?  Should the use of conservation equivalency be reined in?

What the Amendment 7 never got around to discussing was a management outcome, the actual rebuilding of the already overfished stock, even though many stakeholder comments provided during the preliminary Amendment 7 hearings last spring complained that such rebuilding was badly overdue, a point emphasized by Capt. McMurray after he seconded the motion.

But once Ms. Ware made her motion, rebuilding was finally on the table.  And her motion didn’t merely call for rebuilding.  It called for rebuilding within 10 years of learning that the stock had become overfished, as called for in the current management plan, and also required managers to consider current low, rather than average, recruitment when calculating the appropriate level of fishing mortality.

In short, Ms. Ware called for a rebuilding plan that might actually work.

In doing so, she noted that, in spite of a 10-year rebuilding requirement in the management plan, no formal rebuilding plan had yet been adopted.  She acknowledged that she was concerned about current low striped bass recruitment, and pointed out that delaying rebuilding would only make such rebuilding more difficult, and require more restrictive management measures.

She also said that it was important to signal to the public that there was a rebuilding plan underway.  That’s a signal the public has long been waiting for.

Ms. Ware’s motion received some strong support.

Michael Armstrong, Massachusetts’ fisheries director, immediately stated that

“I think this is necessary and I support it…I think that this is a lot more important than some of the other things that are in this Amendment 7.”

G. Ritchie White, New Hampshire’s governor’s appointee, echoed Mr. Armstrong’s comment, saying

“I strongly support this motion…we certainly don’t want to do [to striped bass] what’s happened to herring,”

a reference to the decline of Atlantic herring stocks due to unaddressed recruitment issues.

Other Management Board members also got behind the motion.  Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fishery manager, was largely supportive. He worried about the timing of the motion, and how it would impact the Amendment 7 process, but admitted that

“we missed the boat a bit”

by not already having a rebuilding plan underway.

But there were also Management Board members who stayed true to their less benevolent roles.

Adam Nowalsky, New Jersey’s legislative proxy, didn’t explicitly oppose the motion, but complained that it “adds complexity” to the draft addendum and that, because the Plan Development Team would have to develop rebuilding measures, would prevent the Management Board from approving the Draft Amendment before its next meeting.  He also said that he didn’t like the two options mentioned in the motion, and would prefer that it just called for rebuilding, which would have meant omitting the provisions that established Frebuild, assumed low recruitment, or set a 2029 rebuilding deadline—the very provisions needed for an effective rebuilding plan.

His New Jersey colleague, governor’s appointee Tom Fote, seemed to suggest that there was no reason to attempt rebuilding, because any such effort was either unnecessary or doomed to fail.  On one hand, he pointed to the lack of a stock/recruitment relationship with striped bass—that is, recruitment is largely unrelated to the size of the spawning stock—and noted that a low spawning stock biomass could still result in high recruitment, which by implication made a rebuilding plan unnecessary.  On the other hand, he argued that in the case of the collapsed winter flounder and depleted weakfish stock, landings had been held at low levels for years, without any improvement in stock status.

Michael Luisi, the Maryland fishery manager, said that while he agreed with most of the comments made, the PDT would have to do additional work on the rebuilding plan, and perhaps include other options, specifically mentioning other rebuilding timeframes.  Given Mr. Luisi’s track record on the Management Board, it can be safely assumed that when he was talking about changing the rebuilding timeframe, he wasn’t planning to rebuild the stock any sooner than 2029…

David Borden, Chair of the Management Board and Rhode Island’s governor’s appointee, noted that most of the comments supported the motion, although some of the support was qualified.  He also noted that there were no issues created if adding the rebuilding plan to the draft amendment caused final approval to be delayed until May or even August of next year; given that the measures wouldn’t be implemented until 2023, that still gave everyone plenty of time to prepare.

Mr. Borden then called for a motion to postpone the vote on rebuilding until the end of the meeting, so that the Board could get back to the draft amendment prepared by the Plan Development Team.

And so the long, slow slog began again.

The most important issue discussed at the meeting, other than the rebuilding plan, was probably the management triggers, as they were the only things being discussed that could still send a reasonably good amendment off the rails.  Although the discussion actually took place before Ms. Ware made her motion, I chose not to address it until now, in order to keep all of the Plan Development Team’s proposals in the same place.

Management triggers are important because they determine if and when the Management Board has to respond to threats to the stock.  Delaying such response could prevent false alarms, when uncertain data creates only the appearance of a threat, but it also could allow the biomass to continue to deteriorate in the face of a continuing problem.  Some of the proposed, new management triggers would allow a lot more delay.

Capt. McMurray set the stage well at the beginning of the discussion, when observed that

“the public overwhelmingly supports less delay, not more.”

He noted that despite all the seeming worry about triggers forcing too many management changes, in all of the time since Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was adopted in 2003, there were only two substantial changes to the management measures.  One occurred after the 2013 benchmark stock assessment revealed a declining stock and increased fishing mortality, the other occurred after the 2019 stock assessment informed the Management Board that such trends had not been arrested, and the stock had both become overfished and subject to overfishing.

Two changes over the course of 18 years hardly provides grounds to claim that the management triggers cause too much instability.

Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fishery manager, softly echoed Capt. McMurray’s comments when he requested the removal of proposed management triggers that might give then impression that the Management Board was trying to “wiggle out” from having to take needed action.

Even so, only some of the worst triggers were removed.  The proposal that would have given the Management Board three years, rather than one, to rebuild an overfished stock was deleted, but a proposal to expand rebuilding from one year to two remains.  Another trigger that would only require the Management Board to take action of the average fishing mortality over five years exceeded the target level was also excised, as was one that would delay action until both fishing mortality exceeded its target and spawning stock biomass fell below target for two consecutive years.

There are also some proposals that could delay management response to an overfished stock.  A proposal to require either a two- or three-year average spawning stock biomass confirming that the stock is overfished before taking action was added.  A good Plan Development Team proposal, which would have required rebuilding if a stock assessment found at least a 50% probability that striped bass would become overfished within three years, was removed.

But one place where the Plan Development Team proposals were all significant improvements was the recruitment trigger.  The current recruitment trigger only calls for management action in the event that the juvenile abundance index for a particular spawning area fell into the lower 25% of all such values for three consecutive years.  In the past 60-plus years, the Maryland juvenile abundance index would only have tripped that trigger once; even the current spate of low recruitment, that returned Maryland JAIs of 3.37, 2.48, and 3.20 for 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively, versus a long-term average of 11.4, wasn’t enough to trip the recruitment trigger—and even if it had, the Management Board wouldn’t be required to anything more than decide whether any action was needed.

The proposals put forward by the Plan Development Team would place emphasis on the Maryland juvenile abundance index, which is closely coordinated with coastwide recruitment of year-old striped bass, and would shorten the time series, so that the long low-recruitment period during the stock collapse would not be included, and/or gauge recruitment failure by whether a three-year average of the abundance index, rather than the stand-alone index for each of three consecutive years, fell into the bottom 25% of the historical values.

And, should such recruitment failure occur, the PDT proposals would require the Management Board to take specified remedial actions, rather than providing them the choice between acting or doing nothing at all.

That’s a big improvement over the current management plan; it’s just too bad that the final management trigger proposals would hardwire excuses for not taking action when a trigger is tripped into the management plan, and give the Management Board formal excuse for delay.  For as Capt. McMurray noted, stakeholders have already given notice that they want to see less delay in responding to possible threats to the stock, not more inaction.

The next Plan Development Team proposals addressed dealt with protecting the 2015 year class. 

Given that it may be very difficult to rebuild the stock by 2029 if much of that year class is lost, such protections were generally seen as important to the future of the striped bass.  However, after the Technical Committee reviewed the matter, it found that none of the proposed alternative slot limits or minimum sizes would increase the spawning stock biomass by more than about 4 percent. 

It turns out that overall effort and fishing mortality have much more impact on the stock than would measures that protect a particular year class.  In calculating the impact of management measures, managers assume that angling effort would remain constant, and that such effort, at least from anglers intending to harvest a bass, would merely target a different, unprotected segment of the population.

The only time that wouldn’t apply would be if the proposed recreational moratorium on harvest was implemented.  In that case, effort couldn’t shift to an unprotected portion of the stock, and managers have no way of knowing how many anglers would just stop fishing for bass, and so reduce fishing mortality, and how many would switch from some catch-and-keep to all catch-and-release, and so merely exchange harvest mortality for an unquantified, if lower, level of release mortality.

In the end, that didn’t matter, because no one was enthusiastic about supporting a moratorium on recreational landings that would allow the commercial harvest to continue unabated; the moratorium proposal was ultimately removed from the draft amendment.

That took the Management Board to one of the more controversial aspects of the draft amendment, efforts to reduce recreational release mortality, either through a closed season where even targeting bass was not allowed, or through certain gear restrictions.

There were two clear and completely opposed views on this issue.

The first, and what I believe is the far better view, was expressed by Dr. Davis, who suggested that the emphasis on release mortality represented

“an outdated view of the fishery,”

which is primarily recreational in nature.  He asked why the Management Board should remove the recreational opportunity and economic benefits that the current fishery, releases included, provide.

Mr. Luisi, unsurprisingly, took the opposite view, saying that restrictions that reduce recreational releases represent a new way of thinking of and approaching fishing mortality.  He stated that failing to reduce recreational fishing effort, and so recreational releases and release mortality

“would go against everything I believe in,”

and given how ardently he has always pressed for increased harvest, particularly by the charter and commercial fleets, I certainly suspect that is true.

After other, primarily New England, representatives emphasized the hardships that a two-week midsummer prohibition on even targeting bass would bring, the Management Board agreed to remove such proposal from the draft amendment, although a proposal that would require state-specific closures, at any time during then year when substantial fishing took place, remained in for further consideration.  Also left in was a proposal that called for spawning season closures, something that seemed to have the broadest acceptance.

The Management Board also considered gear restrictions.  It left in a proposal that would, if adopted, make gaffing bass illegal, much to the consternation of Mr. Nowalsky, who made a long and impassioned plea extolling the benefits of gaff-and-release, claiming that it could be done in ways that didn’t hurt the fish.  His comments didn’t convince New York fishery manager John Manascalco, who suggested that poking holes in a bass with a gaff was probably unlikely to lead to less release mortality.  However, potential bans on treble hooks, barbed hooks, and wire line trolling were removed.

The Management Board also retained a provision that would require anglers to release all fish caught on non-compliant gear, a measure that now seems irrelevant to the proposals in Amendment 7, but would still apply to anglers who failed to use circle hooks when fishing with bait.

And with that, the Management Board came to the final issue of conservation equivalency, and how to better prevent its abuse.  A number of proposals that would do things such as restrict the use of conservation equivalency when the stock was overfished or experiencing overfishing, or require a minimum level of precision in state landings data, or impose an added buffer to state conservation equivalency measures in order to account for uncertainty in the data were kept in the draft amendment.

Unfortunately, a proposal to completely prohibit the use of conservation equivalency was challenged, not surprisingly by representatives from states such as New Jersey that habitually abuse the process.  While other Management Board members supported its retention, such proposal was ultimately deleted from the draft.

With all of the Plan Development Team’s proposals addressed, Mr. Borden put Ms. Ware’s rebuilding plan motion back on the floor.  Once again, the usual suspects raised their objections. 

Mr. Luisi stated that he “absolutely” supported rebuilding, but complained that the motion as written lacked sufficient flexibility and “handcuffs” the Plan Development Team.  Mr. Nowalsky had other, but seemingly similar complaints.

Ms. Ware, trying to facilitate the discussion, reworded her motion to read

“Move to task the PDT to develop a formal rebuilding plan for striped bass in Amendment 7 using methods described under ‘Management Response to Recruitment Trigger”.  Options could include a status quo F-target and another option that would establish a F(rebuild) calculated as the F value projected to achieve SSB(rebuild) no later than 2029 under the assumption of the lower recruitment regime.”

The amended motion was both better and worse.  It clarified that the Plan Development Team was to “develop,” not merely “consider,” a rebuilding plan, and opened the possibility of a plan that would rebuild the stock before 2029.  On the other hand, the “Options could include [emphasis added]” language opens the door to additional options that, contrary to the clear language of the management plan, extended rebuilding beyond 2029, assumed average recruitment, or otherwise made rebuilding less likely to succeed.

But we’ll fight those battles in the coming months.  Right now, what really matters is that, for the first time, the Management Board is moving forward with a rebuilding plan.  As Mr. Armstrong suggested, that is something much more important than most of the items being contemplated in the draft amendment.

It’s something that we can point to and say “Finally, the real work is being done.”

 

 

 

 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

STRIPED BASS: HOW DID WE GET HERE (AGAIN)

 I’m not going to be very creative today.

The story of the striped bass, which went from stock collapse in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to a full recovery by 1995, to true abundance in the early 2000s, to becoming overfished again today is one that I, and many others, have told before.

Concerns unaddressed become problems; problems unaddressed grow larger and, if ignored long enough, become crises that threaten the health of the stock.

There is little point in me recounting that story once more, in my own words.

But it might be worthwhile to recount that tale, one more time, in the words of those responsible for the striped bass resource:  The scientists who are responsible for monitoring the stock, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, which is responsible for taking the scientists’ findings and using them to craft management measures that will maintain the health of the striped bass stock and ensure abundance for future generations.

Stories are best understood when told from the beginning, so this tale begins with some words from the ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter, which establishes the policies and procedures that apply to every fishery management plan, including that for striped bass.  In that regard, the Charter directs that

“Above all [a fishery management plan] must include conservation and management measures that ensure the long-term biological and productivity of fishery resources under management.  To this end, the Commission has adopted the following standards:

(1)             Conservation programs and management measures shall be designed to prevent overfishing and maintain over time, abundant, self-sustaining stocks of coastal fishery resources.  In cases where stocks have become depleted as a result of overfishing and/or other causes, such programs shall be designed to rebuild, restore, and subsequently maintain such stocks so as to assure their sustained availability in fishable abundance on a long-term basis.

(2)             Conservation programs and management measures shall be based on the best scientific information available…”

With those governing standards in mind, we can examine the public record, and see how well the Management Board discharged its duty to the striped bass and to the public in this twenty-first century.

All appeared well for the first few years.  The most recent benchmark stock assessment, released in 2019, tells us that 2001 and 2003 saw strong year classes produced in the Chesapeake Bay, and that spawning stock biomass steadily climbed steadily until 2003.  But after that, things began to head the wrong way.

The first flickers of concern about declining abundance appeared at the August 2008 Management Board meeting, when Terry Stockwell, a Maine fishery manager, voiced worries about increasing striped bass landings in response to a favorable stock assessment.

“While the stock overall appears to be doing very well, the catch in Northern New England this past year has been quite dismal.  In fact, there has been a multi-year in declining abundance altogether [sic], so I’m a little anxious about doing anything too aggressive.  You know, is this just a redistribution issue; I’m not sure.  The large fish are disappearing.  This year the schoolies have disappeared.  Before we open Pandora’s Box, at least from the northern end of the range, we would like to stay on course and see our way through this.”

If striped bass abundance was truly declining (as biologists later confirmed that it was), then Maine, at the northern extreme of the striped bass’ range, would be one of the first places to feel the effects.  But Mr. Stockwell’s concerns were casually dismissed by Management Board members such as Pat Augustine, the Governor’s Appointee from New York, who responded,

“…I’ve often asked the question as how many more striped bass do we have to have in the ocean and do the surplus, quote-quote, above the threshold—and there are some folks that are not going to like what I say, but the reality is what kind of damage are those fish doing to the sub-species below them, including the forage fish that other species are feeding on?

“…I know the Chesapeake Bay folks have spent many, many thousands of dollars and hours looking at the food chain for the striped bass and so on in the Chesapeake Bay, and they came up with some interesting results as to what they feed on, when they feed on them and so on.

“…The question that still remains open and unanswered is what are the extra fish over and beyond the threshold doing to the other sub-species?  I’m not trying to start a fight with anybody.  I’m just saying that it is a question.  Look at what happened to winter flounder.  We blame weather conditions and water conditions, lack of eelgrass, lack of phytoplankton, zooplankton, et cetera, on that end, yet what is eating them?...”

And based on that sort of logic, Mr. Stockwell’s early concerns about a decline in the stock were ignored.

At the next Management Board meeting, in October 2008, proposals were put on the table to liberalize recreational striped bass regulations in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, even if such liberalization was not necessarily in accord with the fishery management plan.  Dennis Abbott, the Legislative Appointee from New Hampshire, objected, saying

“…To me what is going on is, as I would term it, we’re dealing with striped bass management as becoming death by thousand cuts.  We keep adding little things to our management plan; we can do this in one place and we can do things in another place, and it doesn’t affect overfishing…

“Though I appreciate what Pennsylvania and Delaware are trying to do to have a better opportunity, we’re really going off the rails here.  When we adopted a coast-wide size limit of 28 inches and 18 inches for the producer areas, that is what we said but we keep weakening that.  I just think that it’s the wrong way to go because in a lot of circles people think that striped bass fishing is not as good as it was; and continuing as a management board to do these things is not going in the right direction.”

But Mr. Abbott’s early concerns were ignored, too.  Yet at the May 2009 Management Board meeting, there were indications that some of the concerns expressed were justified, and that the bass might just be facing a problem.

The exhibits presented at that meeting are not readily available.  However, some of the comments made make it clear what such exhibits revealed.  Douglas Grout, a New Hampshire fishery managers, observed such exhibits and noted

“…There was only one thing that surprised me here…I notice under the fishing mortality rates the only fishing mortality rates that result in either a level [spawning stock biomass] or age 8-plus or an increase is 0.25 or lower.

“I kind of expected the leveling, given that is pretty close to our target, that there would be [a fishing mortality rate of] 0.32, that we would see a leveling of the [spawning stock biomass] or age 8-plus, but clearly the analysis shows that at that level of fishing mortality there would be a rather significant decline in both of those…”

The fishing mortality target at the time, which would remain in place until the 2015 season, was 0.30. 

Dr. Desmond Kahn, speaking for the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee, did not seem overly concerned by the issue raised by Mr. Grout.  He responded that

“…I share your surprise.  This was done by Gary Shepherd [of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center]…The thing that is kind of striking about the graph is that if you look the peak on this appears—it looks like about 2003.  Then we have seen a decline already through 2006, according to this.

“…I think it is something we’re going to explore further this summer.  I’d like to learn more about why this gives this appearance.  I can’t make a judgment as to whether it is totally accurate or not at this point…”

Of course, recent stock assessments have confirmed that the spawning stock biomass did, in fact, hit its peak in 2003, and then began a decline that lead to the stock being overfished today.  But despite the early warning of a possible problem, and some Management Board members expressing concerns over falling recreational catch, the Management Board was not particularly worried about the apparent decline, and so did nothing to intervene as the population began to wane.

Some were even loudly calling for an increase in commercial landings, with New York’s Mr. Augustine saying

“…We’re talking about there is a possible impact on the stock.  We think that there might be a lack or loss of big fish in certain waters, baits have changed, water temperatures have changed.  The bottom line is it seems like every time we put off making a hard decision and in this particular case a commercial sector happened on the short end of the stick, their bag limit of quota has increased once in the last five or seven years…

“So, the question is what are we protecting?  Are we protecting the fish so that recreational fishermen can continue to grow in terms of numbers and harvest their fair share of two fish per person or are we being fair and equitable allowing the commercial sector, which is a valid sector just as the recreational sector is in terms of what it brings to the economy—those people who don’t fish who like to eat striped bass want to be able to eat a fish off the marketplace.

“…Are we doing single-species management and by having an overabundance of striped bass in my mind are surplus, what is the negative effect those striped bass are having on fish down the food chain?

“We can’t blame all the demise of the winter flounder strictly on striped bass.  We say there are the birds, we say there’re the seals, but the bottom line is they are eating down the food chain.  Whether they’re porgies, black sea bass, it doesn’t matter what they are.  So, if in fact we’re going to try to keep our spawning stock biomass above that threshold, the question we have to answer is how far above that threshold?...”

While the commercial increase never occurred, the striped bass’ decline continued.

Finally, in 2011, biologists formally confirmed that the striped bass stock was facing future problems, when a stock assessment update informed the Management Board that

“Female [spawning stock biomass] will fall slightly below the threshold by 2017 under both [the average and the low] recruitment scenarios.”

 Knowing that the stock would become overfished within the next six years, the Management Board began to rouse itself, and initiated work on a addendum to the management plan that could have significantly reduced fishing mortality, and might have halted the stock’s decline.  However, at the November 2011 Management Board meeting, progress was halted.

Once again, New York’s Mr. Augustine took the offensive, saying, despite the conclusions of the 2011 assessment update,

“We’ve heard a lot of gnashing of teeth concerned about the actual status of the stock, and we, the board, have to take some serious action to prevent a variety of things happening, particularly mortality on the larger fish.  I know we’ve gone off on a venture here in the last couple of meetings saying that we’ve got to protect, got to protect, got to protect, and at the same time the reality of what you’ve presented is so starkingly black and white that the status of the stock is not in harm’s way.”

Dr. Jaime Geiger of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service effectively agreed, saying

“if I had to put it in a simplistic way, red light, yellow light, green light, we have a green light fishery with getting ready to enter possibly a yellow light phase.”

For him, the prediction of an overfished stock six years down the road didn’t merit more than that.

Tom Fote, Governor’s Appointee from New Jersey, clearly opposed reducing striped bass landings, saying

“how can I be a hypocrite and go out to my public in New Jersey and basically say, oh, by the way, we’ve been doing so great with striped bass and there really is no—we haven’t hit any of the triggers [for management action contained in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass] and now I’m going to reduce your catch by 40 percent.”

Jim Gilmore, New York’s fishery manager, agreed that striped bass constituted a “green light fishery” and noted

“If we take action now of the magnitude that was recommended in this addendum, we are overmanaging this fishery and that’s one of the things we’ve got to start getting away from.  From anything that I’ve seen and read in all the reports, I think the fishery is in good shape and we really need to do nothing at this point.”

While Mr. Gilmore was concerned about “overmanaging” striped bass, it’s worth pointing out that, after going through many years of Management Board transcripts, no one has ever expressed concern that the Board might be “undermanaging” the resource, and not taking action when action was needed.

Still, there were voices at the November 2011 meeting that expressed concern for the striped bass.

Mr. Stockwell of Maine supported the possible landings reductions, saying

“I’ve been hearing a lot of good news today, but frankly I don’t hear any good news from the northern Gulf of Maine.  A number of our charterboat businesses have gone out of business.  Our recreational fishermen are not finding the fish.”

G. Ritchie White, New Hampshire’s Governor’s Appointee, concurred.

“…If there is a reasonable possibility that we will be overfishing in 2017 and 2018, I would much rather take a baby step now [and move forward with harvest reductions] than take some drastic action then.  Whether we need the 40 percent [reduction] or not, I’m not sure, but doing something at this point to slow down the mortality on a spawning stock biomass I think is important…”

Mr. Grout of New Hampshire also supported some sort of action.

“…Clearly we’re seeing a decline in the [spawning stock biomass]…what we’re looking at is under a low recruitment scenario there is a projection that by 2017 we’re going to be in that overfished condition.

“That is the line in the sand.  It’s not going below the target; it’s going below our established threshold here.  Even under average recruitment, which includes the good years, we’re going to be right at that threshold by that time.  The question to me here is do we want to get out ahead of this and prevent this from occurring and help us achieve our vision of healthy and sustainable stocks by 2015 or do we want to wait and react?”

The Management Board’s choice, by a vote of nine to six, was to wait and react to an impending crisis.

Their chance to do just that came only two years later, after the 2013 benchmark stock assessment reported conditions that tripped two of the management triggers in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  Those triggers, approved in 2003 by the Management Board, stated that

“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 in 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,”

and

“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 [no more than ten years].”

The Management Board’s duty was clear, and to its credit, it began work on an addendum to the management plan that would, at least partially, address the management triggers.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone agreed.  Tom Fote of New Jersey opposed any additional conservation measures, saying

“It seems I’ve been here over the years doing the same thing.  We have been looking at some figures for a period of time and then decided we’re going to do a drastic cut.  Two years later they’re finding out that we didn’t need the drastic cuts and had to change the regulations in New Jersey again…

“I’m really concerned to do this in such a fast-track method when it has such an impact on the people involved that basically harvest these fish and the industry is there.  We’re not doing any social and economic impact of what will happen going from two fish to one fish.  As I said, I look at these figures and I don’t see the sky falling.

“I see that we’re coming to where we have decided where a threshold will be and then we’re getting close to that line, but we’re not under that line.  It is not overfished and overfishing is not taking place.  People have been pushing for closing this or doing something.  The people that basically send the emails are the people who want to do that.  The people that are out fishing a lot times, which are a majority of the fishermen that I go around and talk to, they’re not ready to jump through this type of hoop.  I really think we have some real concerns here.”

But this time, folks like Mr. Fote were in the minority.  As Mr. White of New Hampshire observed,

“I’m hearing from a lot of constituents; and I’m hearing terms like ‘collapse’, ‘catastrophe’, ‘you’re going to manage this like Atlantic cod’…”

Pat Kelliher, the Maine fisheries manager, said that

“The trends are very disturbing with this fishery.  Mr. Fote’s comments about Maine having a good year this year, I’m not sure if you have fished there but I did and it was still below average compared to what it has been in years past.”

Given such sentiments, an addendum to reduce harvest was begun.  However, it didn’t take long before people began looking for ways to undercut the management triggers on which the addendum was based.  While most such efforts failed, it was the ASMFC staff, rather than members of the management board, that managed to successfully circumvent Amendment 6’s requirement that the stock be rebuilt within no more than ten years.

Michael Waine, then the ASMFC’s fishery management plan coordinator for striped bass, explained it this way at the August 2014 Management Board meeting:

“Management trigger 2 [sic] in Amendment 6 says that you have to rebuild [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 projections showing that [spawning stock biomass] will start increasing towards its target, but we’re uncomfortable with projecting out far enough to tell you when it will reach its target biomass because the further on the projections we go the more uncertainty that is involved.  Therefore, I think the trend is to go back toward the target, but we can’t tell you exactly how quickly that will happen.”

As a result, no rebuilding plan was ever put in place, although fishing mortality was, for a while, reduced to target.  Yet the ink was barely dry on the new addendum before Michael Luisi, fishery manager from Maryland, tried to again increase fishing mortality at the November 2015 Management Board meeting.

“…I think some people—I know a lot of my stakeholders are under the impression that this addendum was a one-year plan to get the fishing mortality to the target and they’re expecting that there be some consideration of relief.

“There has been a great deal of hardship in Maryland.  The commercial charterboat captains have gone out of business as a result of the actions that have been taken.  I would like to have it on the record, Mr. Chairman, in your opinion when will the shareholders have an opportunity and when will this board have an opportunity to look at making management change for the future or are we just expecting to hold the line where we are indefinitely into the future?”

In retrospect, Mr. Luisi’s words seem more than a little ironic, as it turns out that Maryland was experiencing no sacrifices at all.  When the impacts of the management measures adopted in 2014 were analyzed, it turned out that instead of achieving a 20.5% reduction in recreational landings, as required by the new addendum to the management plan, Maryland anglers actually enjoyed more than a 50% increase in the number of striped bass killed.

Even so,  Mr. Luisi tried to further increase the striped bass kill.  Because the 2015 fishing mortality rate was calculated to be 0.16, just a statistically insignificant 0.02 below the target of 0.18, he argued at the October 2016 Management Board meeting that

“if we were to move from 0.16 to 0.18, it would be a small tick, maybe a 5 to 8 percent liberalization, in terms of numbers.  Maybe that’s what it would be…But what I’m thinking about and what I’m looking at, is the fact that perhaps just that very small change could be something that saves a few of the fishermen in my state.

“A half an inch in minimum size could mean a lot to our fleets, our charterboat and recreational fleet; more so the charterboat community…”

For a while, the Management Board seemed inclined to go along with his request; it even initiated a new addendum to increase striped bass landings.  However, in the end, such addendum was not approved.  Still, Mr. Luisi was not done trying to maximize striped bass landings. 

Ms. Nichole Lengyel presented the Technical Committee report at the February 2017 Management Board meeting, at which she noted that

“preliminary 2016 removals were estimated at 3.6 million fish.  This is an 18 percent increase from 2015.  Keep in mind these are just preliminary estimates; they could increase when they become final…

“…2016 removals are likely an underestimate…”

Dr. Katie Drew, the Technical Committee Chair, followed up with a comment that

“[the data] is suggesting that if we did the update in 2016 with 2016 data, it would suggest that we were above the [fishing mortality] target in 2016…

“We are forecasting that if you took the same level of removals out that you took in 2016, you would most likely be above target again in 2017.”

At that point, the same Mr. Luisi who had just attempted to increase landings based on the ephemeral difference between a fishing mortality rate of 0.16 and one of 0.18 said

“I just want to make sure it’s clear that there is no plan right now to do a 2016 or 2017 assessment, which will give us more certain values for the 2016 [fishing mortality rate] as it relates to coastwide harvest.”

Clearly, he far preferred relying on the 2015 data, which probably understated landings, than the updated and likely more accurate landings data from the two following years.

And so things remained at the status quo until a new benchmark stock assessment, released in 2019, found the stock to be both overfished and subject to overfishing.  Once again, the Management Board chose to address the problem by reducing fishing mortality to the target level, but ignoring the requirement to initiate a 10-year rebuilding plan.

But the story of the striped bass continues today, when the stock remains overfished, and recruitment in the Chesapeake Bay, the single most important producer of striped bass, has been dismally low for the past three years.

On Wednesday, the Management Board will meet again, to write the next chapter in the continuing saga.  In doing so, they have a choice:  They can act decisively, and take the actions most likely to rebuild the bass stock, and keep it healthy in the future.

Or, they can reprise the past, and dither, and further delay, while the bass stock suffers for their inaction.

Those words, we’ve read before.