Thursday, October 8, 2015


The black sea bass is an unassuming little fish that can be found along most of the Atlantic seaboard.

It tends to hang around wrecks, reefs and similar structure.  One of my friends, who is an enthusiastic diver, says that he never sees one more than five feet away from some sort of rock or debris, even if it’s as small as an old tire.  On the other hand, on good wooden wrecks, they can be extremely abundant; he tells of seeing them so packed into such pieces so tightly that they resemble sardines in a can.

And all of us who engage in wreck fishing can tell of clouds of sea bass that nearly blanked out the fishfinder screen and rose twenty or thirty feet off the bottom.

Such propensity to bunch up around wrecks, along with an extremely large 2011 year class, means that fishermen are seeing, and catching, a lot of black sea bass these days.  However, annual catch limits remain very conservative, due to a benchmark stock assessment, released in early 2012, that failed to pass scientific peer review.

The assessment failed for a number of reasons, including its inability to adequately address the species’ stock structure—although all black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina are managed as a single stock, in reality there are probably three different stocks of fish in that region, each of which may vary in terms of health and fishing activity—and life history as a protogynous hermaphrodite that begins life as a female and may—or may not—later transition into a male.

As a result of the failed peer review, black sea bass are considered a “data-poor species” and cannot be managed in accordance with biomass and fishing mortality targets.  

Instead, managers at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council have adopted what is known as a “constant catch” strategy which sets a very conservative annual catch limit that does not fluctuate from year to year.

At the Mid-Atlantic Council’s August meeting, a representative of the Council’s Science and Statistics Committee admitted that such strategy was a “blunt instrument” that required annual catch limits to be set lower than would otherwise be the case, since a constant catch approach is slow to react to the onset of overfishing.

However, low catch limits at a time of seeming stock abundance doesn’t go over too well with some sea bass fishermen, or with the for-hire boats that take such fishermen out onto the water.

The result have been attacks on fisheries managers, as well as on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which was responsible for rebuilding the black sea bass stock in the first place.  

The attacks differ in vehemence and, at times, in rationality, but the following comment made a few years ago by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which typically speaks for the fishing industry, is typical.

“According to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) there are simply too many black sea bass along the East Coast which has led to too much angler success.  Because the stock is so healthy, NOAA Fisheries will have no choice but to shut the fishery down for the next four months while considering how to take a huge chunk of the allowable catch away from anglers in 2013.”
Ignoring for the moment that the statement was inaccurate—NOAA Fisheries had no intention of reducing the “allowable catch”, but merely was seeking ways to keep anglers from killing more sea bass than was deemed to be prudently “allowable”—it exemplifies the sort of overblown rhetoric that has characterized the debate, as partisans of greater harvest ignore the critical details of the situation while trying to elicit the sort of knee-jerk emotional response most likely to turn them against the current fishery management system.

The goal of such language becomes readily apparent a little farther along in the RFA’s comments, where the organization argues that

“credit for this fisheries fiasco can be given to the 109th Congress which convened from 2005-2007.
“’Congress reauthorized the federal fisheries law in 2006 by incorporating ridiculous, empty-headed logic pushed by environmental organizations, and for the past 5 years our legislators have refused to accept their responsibility for destroying the original intent of Magnuson,’ said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio, who called the federal fisheries law a ‘jobs killer’ as reauthorized…
“RFA has been pushing legislation in Congress to reintroduce some sensibility in fisheries management by incorporating some limited management flexibility into the federal fisheries law.  Specifically, Rep. Frank Pallone’s (D-NJ) Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act would effectively deal with rebuilding timelines, rigidly enforced [Annual Catch Limits] and accountability measures, while requiring a full review of the NOAA’s recreational data collection by the National Research Council…”
Pallone’s bill never made it through committee, much less through Congress, and it has since been replaced by Rep. Don Young’s (R-AK) arguably worse Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R. 1335), which was passed by the House last May. 

However, while the bills' names and sponsors might change over the years, the basic motivation behind the legislation remains the same—a desire to give fisheries managers the “flexibility” to ignore the best available science (or replace it with fishermen’s anecdotal and self-serving tales), delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks, tolerate overfishing and not hold fishermen responsible when they overharvest fish stocks.

It is an effort to replace current law’s disciplined and generally successful approach to rebuilding and conserving fish stocks with something very close to the sort of lassiez-faire management that caused many stocks to collapse in the first place.

Based on past experience, we can be just about certain that if folks such as the RFA got their way, there wouldn’t be “too many black sea bass along the East Coast” for more than a season or two.

However, the fact that folks such as the RFA are taking a wrongheaded approach to the “flexibility” issue doesn’t mean that the current approach to black sea bass management can’t use a few tweaks that would allow anglers to take home a couple more fish.

A new benchmark stock assessment will be developed next year and, if it makes it through the peer review process, should affect regulations in 2017 or 2018.  However, managers have also been seeking a better way to manage the species in the interim.

Now, it appears that they may have found it.

Just yesterday, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council received a report from Council staff, reporting on a new modeling approach to black sea bass management that was proposed by a team of biologists comprised of Jason McNamee of the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife and Gavin Fay and Steven Cadrin, both of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. 

Using the new approach, which utilized a software suite designed for assessing data limited species, the team not only determined that the Allowable Biological Catch for black sea bass could be increased from 5.50 to 6.67 million pounds, but also that there was a better than 70% chance that such higher level of harvest would not result in overfishing.

Ultimately, the Council voted to adopt and implement the team’s new approach, and it is a near-certainty that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board will adopt it, too, when they meet in November.

It’s not the final answer to the problems that plague black sea bass management.  The researchers freely acknowledge that there are still plenty of uncertainties in the available data, and note that the new approach

“is only offered as a potential interim solution for specification setting, as a full analytical assessment process is underway for this stock…these data limited approaches should not be considered to the exclusion of a full analytical assessment.”
Still, the approach increases the Allowable Biological Catch by roughly 20%, while also providing adequate protection for the black sea bass stock.

But perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates that both the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and the procedures adopted by the NOAA Fisheries and the regional fishery management councils to implement such provisions, are flexible enough to allow innovative solutions to management problems caused by poor or perplexing data.

It’s not the kind of chaotic flexibility championed by the RFA and some of the other industry groups, which would allow managers to allow overfishing, ignore scientific advice and risk driving fish stocks over the brink of collapse.

Instead, it’s a disciplined flexibility that doesn’t lock managers into a single, restrictive approach to regulating fishing mortality, but instead allows them to consider and implement new strategies that offer fishermen larger harvests in the short term, while still assuring that the long-term health of the stock will not be compromised.

And unlike the irresponsible approaches promoted by groups such as RFA, a disciplined flexibility, which benefits fish and fisherman alike, is a very good thing for us all.

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