If you listen to current discussions about striped bass management, you’ll quickly learn that there is a real need to reduce overall fishing mortality.
But listen a little closer, and the nuances begin to come through. It’s not only fishing mortality, some people will tell you, that is the problem, but a specific kind of fishing mortality—the mortality that occurs when recreationally-caught fish are returned to the water.
They call it “release mortality,” and sometimes “dead discards/” But whatever you call it, in the case of striped bass you largely mean the same thing—fish returned to the water by anglers which, despite the anglers' best efforts and intentions, fail to survive.
If we look at the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, we learn that there are two kinds of discards, “economic discards” and “regulatory discards.” Magnuson-Stevens tells us that
“The term ‘economic discards’ means fish which are the target of a fishery, but which are not retained because they are of an undesirable size, sex, or quality, or for other economic reasons,”
“The term ‘regulatory discards’ means fish harvested in a fishery which fishermen are required by regulation to discard whenever caught, or are required by regulation to retain but not sell.”
If we apply those definitions to the recreational striped bass fishery, it’s clear that anglers don’t typically produce economic discards, since economic considerations don’t generally dictate whether or not recreational fishermen keep a fish. On the other hand, striped bass anglers can and do produce regulatory discards, when they return a fish to the water because it does not comply with the existing size limit, bag limit, or season.
While it is nice to think that all discarded fish returned to the water survive, we know that’s not the case. Some fish inevitably die after being released. There is a general consensus that reducing discards to the extent practical, and thus reducing discard mortality, is a responsible goal. That makes perfect sense, as discards, whether economic or regulatory, provide no economic benefit, and are not valued by fishermen. The presence of discards only causes fishermen unneeded work while placing additional stress on fish populations.
However, in recreational fisheries—and particularly in the recreational striped bass fishery—many fish are caught that do not easily fit into either category of discards. They are targeted, and caught, by anglers, who have no intent to retain them.
While some of those fish might arguably be regulatory discards, others are fish that anglers may keep but choose not to, because they value the act of catching fish far more than they value keeping such fish and taking them home.
Such intentionally released fish fall outside the definitions of economic or regulatory discards. The very term “discard” connotes something unwanted, while the fish we’re discussing here were fish that the angler very much wanted to catch, but did not want to keep. What we’re talking about are preplanned, intentional releases of fish that the angler never intended to retain..
In the case of striped bass, we are talking about a release fishery which, by its existence, generates substantial social and economic benefits that are separate and apart from—and arguably substantially greater than—the benefits derived from harvest. Yet even if fish are not intentionally harvested, some released fish will not survive. In the striped bass fishery, managers have not yet comfortably come to grips with such release mortality.
Instead, they often try to make an inappropriate value judgement, and equate such releases to discards.
Discards, or at least dead discards, represent unalloyed waste. Undersized, over-limit, or out-of-season fish that are shoveled off a trawler's deck, often already dead or dying, do no one any good, although various scavengers might get an easy meal. Similarly, sharks dumped off a longliner because they’d take up space in the hold that might otherwise be used for more valuable tuna or swordfish are killed without providing any countervailing benefit to anyone.
Release mortality is often conflated with such discard mortality, and is too often seen as something equally bad, to be minimized whenever possible. In the hierarchy of management outcomes, fish intentionally killed and harvested by anglers are held in higher regard than those unintentionally killed during release. Managers seek to maximize landings, while minimizing release mortality.
Thus, the fact that release mortality accounts for about half of all striped bass fishing mortality causes consternation, while the fact that the combined recreational and commercial striped bass harvest accounts for 48%--also about half—of such mortality does not.
Yet, from a biological perspective, there is no qualitative difference between a fish that dies after release and a fish that dies after being thrown into a cooler. Both have been removed from the population, both have been removed from the spawning stock, neither will contribute to future reproduction.
To put it succinctly, dead is dead. To a fish population, or to an ecosystem, the details of the death don’t matter.
However, from the perspective of the fishery, maybe how a bass dies really does make a difference. Perhaps a high level of release mortality, far from being the great bugaboo, is a sign that the fishery is maximizing its social and economic returns.
Let me pause for a second to be sure that everyone understands: I am not saying that a high release mortality rate is a good thing. Right now, the release mortality rate for striped bass is believed to be 9 percent, which is one of the lowest release mortality rates on the East Coast. Even so, any realistic ways to drop the rate even lower are worthy of pursuit.
Instead, I am arguing that it’s not necessarily a bad thing when recreational release mortality is the greatest single component of striped bass fishing mortality.
That’s because the striped bass is fishery primarily a recreational fishery, with 85 to 90 percent of all fishing mortality attributable to the recreational sector. Furthermore, it is not merely a recreational fishery, but a recreational release fishery that, since 1990, has seen about 90 percent of the fish caught by anglers returned to the water.
The benefits of such a fishery are optimized by maximizing recreational effort, although always within sustainable limits, and not by maximizing recreational yield.
When effort increases, the number of releases increases, so the number of fish that die after release will increase as well. But that’s fine, so long as the increase in release mortality is offset by more restrictive management measures that result in a corresponding reduction in landings.
Yes, I know that’s heresy to saltwater fisheries managers, who have long worshipped at the altar of yield, and still quest after the highest sustainable level of landings. But it’s not a new concept; managing fisheries for recreational effort, rather than yield, is something that has been done for years, in both fresh and salt water.
No-kill trout streams are probably the best-known example. In such rivers, trout are often larger and more abundant than they are in waters where harvest is allowed. While recreational release mortality accounts for 100 percent of all fishing mortality in such waters, few if any fisheries managers see any problem with that.
A similar situation exists in the Florida tarpon fishery, where all tarpon caught must be released; the only exception comes in the form of a permit, issued to anglers seeking a state or world record fish, which allows them to retain a single contending tarpon each year. Once again, release mortality is, by far, the primary component of fishing mortality, but no one seems too concerned.
And those are merely two examples. In many purely recreational fisheries—bonefish, permit, largemouth bass, muskellunge—catch-and-release angling is widely practiced, and is the single largest source of fishing mortality, yet no one complains.
Why should the striped bass fishery be viewed any differently?
If striped bass were managed to maximize yield, pursuant to size and perhaps bag limits that made it relatively easy for anglers to catch and take home a legal-sized fish, effort would have to be sharply curtailed, probably by substantial closed seasons, to prevent overfishing. Managers would need to closely regulate catch-and-release fishing, and almost certainly prohibiting it during any closed seasons, in order to reduce release mortality to a sustainable level. Because no one spends money on trips they can’t take, such a reduction in effort would result in a sharp reduction in the economic benefits gleaned from the striped bass fishery. People might be keeping more bass, but they would be catching (and releasing) fewer of them, and spending less money on each harvested fish.
On the other hand, if bass were managed to maximize angler effort, probably through the use of very restrictive size and bag limits, release mortality would increase. Because it takes 11 released fish to equal the harm done to the bass population by harvesting a single individual, anglers would be able to take many more trips, and spend far more money, than they would in a harvest-oriented fishery.
Contrary to what people often say at management meetings, managing the striped bass fishery in a way that maximizes effort will provide greater economic benefits to angling-related businesses, and provide anglers with greater recreational opportunities, than will managing the fishery for yield.
A higher level of release mortality is merely the price that managers must pay to maximize the fishery’s social and economic returns.
Thus, the members of the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board must learn to stop worrying about, and fearing, release mortality. Instead, they must learn to embrace it, and realize that such mortality, and not that attributable to landings, is the key to maximizing the social and economic values of the most important inshore fishery in the United States.