Thursday, August 27, 2015


It’s almost that time of year again.  Nights are getting longer, and the extra hours of darkness are allowing the waters to begin to cool.

Up north, striped bass are getting restless.  In just a few more weeks, the first fish from New England will begin to appear in the waters off eastern Long Island.

And as soon as they do, the stories will start of hundreds of stripers floating dead on the surface, victims of trawlers that couldn’t, or couldn’t bother, to rein in their bycatch.  
Although there will sometimes be a little exaggeration, for the most part the stories are true, and the problem they describe is real.

Unfortunately, many states, including New York, don’t do enough to prevent it.  The reasons vary.  One of the biggest obstacles to solving the problem in New York State is that, while the Department of Environmental Conservation has the authority to regulate stripers, it lacks the authority to restrict the use of destructive gear types in other fisheries in order to reduce striped bass bycatch.

Establishing seasonal no-trawl zones to protect the migrating stripers is something that it just can’t do.

The problem is worsened by a well-meaning rule that prohibits trawlers from targeting bass, but allows them to keep up to 21 stripers per trip if they are caught “as bycatch.”  Such regulation tempts too many trawlers to make a tow their nets through the bass schools, keeping their 21 fish while throwing back mostly dead bass that exceed that number, or are above or below the state’s “slot” size limit.

Some commercial fishermen deny that such targeted effort takes place, but at the January 2010 meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, trawler captain Paul Farnham of Montauk, tried to get the “bycatch’ limit increased to 100 stripers per trip, reportedly arguing that

“the current by-catch allowance forced a trawl fisherman with a full-share allocation of striped bass tags to make a lot of trips to catch tag allocation.  That was economically wasteful and unnecessary.”
While it’s illegal for a trawler to target stripers, the phrase “make a lot of trips to catch tag allocation” pretty well says it all…

For many years, it has been very difficult to quantify the striped bass bycatch.  However, recent efforts by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Technical Committee have begun to shed some light on that question.

The effort arose out of the benchmark striped bass stock assessment that was completed in 2013, the update to such assessment which included the 2012 data, and the resulting Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass which, in accord with the assessment, adopted a fishing mortality target of 0.180 and a fishing mortality threshold of 0.219, both substantially lower than the previous fishing mortality reference points.

Striped bass landings had to be reduced by 25% in order to have at least an even chance of constraining harvest to the new fishing mortality target, and ASMFC took the actions needed to do that last October.  However, there was a strong dissent from the jurisdictions bordering on Chesapeake Bay, which had previously fished under different rules than the coast, and felt that a 25% reduction was not fair.  They asked that the Striped Bass Technical Committee derive a unique set of reference points just for the Bay.

And this is where things got interesting.

Since the assessment assumed a unified stock, in order to break out the Chesapeake fishery, the Technical Committee broke down the striped bass harvest according to “fleets,” and calculated target and threshold fishing mortality for each one.

The biggest was the so-called “Ocean” fleet, which encompassed all of the recreational and commercial striped bass fisheries that took place outside of Chesapeake Bay—including those prosecuted in places such as the Hudson and Delaware rivers, even though calling them “ocean” was a bit of a stretch.  The Ocean fleet was assigned a fishing mortality target of 0.141 and a threshold of 0.172; as of 2012, the last year of the assessment, actual Ocean mortality was estimated to be 0.141—precisely on target.

The next-largest fleet was the “Chesapeake Bay” fleet which, naturally enough, included only the fisheries within Chesapeake Bay.  The Chesapeake’s fishing mortality target was set at 0.052, its threshold at 0.64; actual 2012 fishing mortality was set at 0.59, over target but less than the threshold—and high enough to suggest that the Bay jurisdictions’ protest that the proposed 25% cut was unfair was not well supported by fact.

The final and smallest fleet was “Commercial Discard.”  It was assigned a fishing mortality target of 0.0194 and a threshold of 0.0236, tiny in compared to the other two fleets, but still pretty significant when you realize that all of the mortality consisted of waste

The Commercial Discard fleet was the only one that overfished in 2012.  Its estimated fishing mortality rate was 0.041, well beyond the 0.0236 overfishing threshold and fully 52% above target. 

And maybe, finally, we have a tool we can use to get things under control.

If managers could be convinced to begin a new addendum that required the states to end overfishing by its Commercial Discard fleet, a lot of the current waste might finally be avoided.

Such an approach would not have to be overly prescriptive; states could tailor the discard reductions to local conditions.  However, the states would all be compelled to take some sort of meaningful action to cut discard mortality, lest they be found out of compliance and their entire striped bass fishery shut down.

The threat of a federally-imposed moratorium on all striped bass fishing, and the knowledge of the economic problems such a moratorium would cause, could go a long way to spur legislators in states such as New York to take some sort of action to get bycatch under control.  It would also be an incentive for commercial and recreational striped bass fishermen to make common cause to see such laws enacted, lest they both lose their shot at the fish.

No one has yet suggested that such an addendum be drafted, and the chances of getting it done remain slim.  After the long and bitter debate leading up to Addendum IV, starting a second addendum so hard on its heels will be a difficult thing to do. 

In addition, fishermen responsible for the lion’s share of the discards would fight hard against any restrictions, which would probably also reduce their harvest of target species.  And some of those fishermen may very well sit on ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board.

And that may be the best argument of all for moving forward.

For the people who fight the hardest against conservation measures are the ones who are afraid that they’ll work.

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