Sunday, January 31, 2016
STRIPED BASS: THE INK'S NOT EVEN DRY...
Beginning even before the release of the benchmark striped bass stock assessment in 2013, a legion of concerned striped bass anglers were engaged in a seemingly endless fight to convince managers to reduce striped bass harvest and rebuild a declining striped bass population.
When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board voted, in late 2014, to reduce harvest by 25%, we won a victory of sorts, although the ultimate reduction was smaller than we had requested.
But as soon as that fight was done, we were forced into another battle at the state level, as fish-hungry businesses and angling organizations began to press fisheries managers, using ASMFC’s concept of “conservation equivalency” to find was to kill more striped bass than the one fish, no less than 28 inches in length, that the Management Board set as the coastwide standard.
Thanks to the leadership of some state fisheries managers, notably most of those in New England and—yes, I’m proud to say it—right here in New York, 1 fish at 28 inches or more became the standard all along the coast, except in New Jersey, where conservation is as alien as a three-headed cow, and Delaware which, in recent years, seems to have been infected by New Jersey’s mismanagement efforts.
Now, with the ink on last year’s regulations barely dry on the page, it appears that New Jersey’s contagion is spreading even farther south, and morphing into a sort of even more malign infection as it hybridizes with native greed in the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions.
For when ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board meets on the morning of Wednesday, February 4, it will be considering three motions which, whether taken together or separately, can only undermine the gains won in late 2014.
Two of those motions are being carried forward from November’s meeting, and will require substantial public input; they won’t affect the fishery any sooner than 2017; the third, however, could be approved and implemented in time for this spring’s striped bass season, with no public input at all.
That change would allow Maryland to adopt the same sort of two-fish bag limit that is currently in effect in New Jersey and Delaware, which would allow anglers fishing in coastal waters (as opposed to Chesapeake Bay) to keep one fish between 28 and 38 inches in length, along with a second fish at least 44 inches long, or to adopt a 2-fish bag limit and a 33-inch minimum size.
The former option, which includes a 6-inch protected “slot,” is probably the lesser of the two evils, as it at least protects the important 2003 year class, fish which, according to information compiled by the State of Delaware and shared on the Delaware Surf Fishing website, should average 40 or 41 inches this year.
Another proposed change, which affects the so-called spring “trophy” fishery, would simplify the size limit from last year’s 28-36 inches or 40 inches or more, which was intended to protect some of the medium-sized breeders, to a flat 36-inch minimum that only preserves the smallest adults while targeting the most fecund females (under an alternate proposal, charter boats would be allowed to keep one fish between 28 and 36 inches, with the rest over 36, on each trip).
There is no Maryland data to support the proposed change to its coastal size limit. Materials prepared for the February ASMFC meeting note that
“the use of Delaware’s conservation equivalency proposal has not been approved for use in Maryland. Maryland’s coastal anglers have requested that regulations be consistent between the two states but Maryland’s Atlantic Ocean data is too poor to conduct our own conservation equivalency calculations…Examining the raw length data from MRIP, including imputed lengths, 25 ocean fish were measured in Maryland in 2011-2013, not enough to characterize the ocean length frequency…Due to the lack of data and the desire to have consistent regulations between the states, Maryland requests approval to adopt Delaware’s Addendum IV regulations for the 2016 fishing season. [emphasis added]”
It’s easy to criticize Maryland’s effort, based on the lack of state-specific data that provides some confidence that the proposed regulations would actually meet the Addendum IV mandate to reduce harvest by 25%. However, doing so would miss the bigger point.
Biologists have yet to confirm that Delaware’s—and more importantly, New Jersey’s—allegedly “equivalent” regulations managed to achieve such 25% reduction.
That information is on the way. At its November 2015 meeting, the Striped Bass Management Board agreed that an update to the stock assessment should be prepared, which would determine the state of the bass population at the close of 2015, and provide some real guidance on the impact of the new regulations.
In the interests of good management, no changes should be made until that update is released. However, as we’ve seen so many times, that’s not the way things are done at ASMFC.
In fact, the change to the Maryland regulations are far from the worst proposal that the Striped Bass Management Board will address on February 4. For one of the carry-over motions that will be considered would
“Move to initiate an Addendum to reconsider management options in the Chesapeake Bay from Addendum IV for 2016 based on the stock assessment update in 2015 and retrospective projections.”
That was bad enough, but the usual suspects in the Mid-Atlantic wished to amend that motion with another, which said
“Move to amend [the previous motion] to remove the words ‘in the Chesapeake Bay.’”
In other words, there are motions on the table to effectively undo all the hard work put into Addendum IV.
And that is what the Management Board is going to consider on February 4.
Before the ink has had time to dry…
Again, it’s the sort of thing that we’ve come to expect at ASMFC, with Robert T. Brown, President of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, arguing
“However, the benchmark, which was raised in the [sic] 2013, and the board approved Addendum IV in October 2014 in order to reduce F to a level at or below the new targets—coastal states a 25 percent reduction; the Chesapeake Bay a 20.5 percent reduction—this Addendum IV needs to be revisited, restructured or abolished. We moved too fast. [emphasis added]”
Because, sure, it was a peer-reviewed stock assessment and all—clearly the best available science—but that didn’t mean that ASMFC really had to use it for management…
Hopefully, no one will be surprised to hear that Tom Fote, governor’s appointee from New Jersey, quickly leaped on the kill-more-bass bandwagon, saying
“I’m probably going to get beat up on the internet again because they call me a striped bass hog [author’s note: If one walks like a hog, and talks like a hog, then…]; but I’m looking at the science and I have to base my decision on the science. If we had just really looked at the science, we shouldn’t have done this addendum to this plan…”
Fote based his comments on the fact that the Atlantic Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update 2015 estimated a female spawning stock biomass at the close of 2014 at around 63,918 metric tons, above both the “overfished” threshold of 57,626 metric tons and the 58,200 metric tons estimated for the end of 2012 in the Update to the Stock Assessment Using Final 2012 Data, and claimed that known retrospective bias in the assessment justified taking no action to reduce fishing mortality.
Of course, Fote assumed that the 2015 update, which showed a higher female spawning stock biomass, provided the correct estimate of stock size, and that the update using 2012 data was wrong, instead of it being the other way around (the sort of assumption one could be expected to make if one was, well, a bass hog…)
However, if we actually looked at the science, as Fote claims to have done, we’d know that in both cases, the numbers in question were merely point estimates, and that the best that the scientists can say, with a 95% certainty of being right, was that the female SSB at the end of 2014 was somewhere between 51,183 and 76,653 metric tons, and somewhere between 43,262 and 73,212 metric tons at the end of 2012, which means that the two updates don’t really contradict each other at all.
Furthermore, even if we assume that the point estimates are right, the 2014 update provides an estimate far below the biomass target of 72,032 metric tons, so there’s a lot of rebuilding to do. And Fote and the other folks wanting to increase the kill must have somehow missed the statement in the 2015 update that
“If the constant catch of 3,402,641 fish was maintained during 2015-2017, the probability of being below the SSB threshold increases to 0.49 by 2015.”
Or maybe they didn’t, and just figure that a mere 49% chance that the stock became overfished last year gives them all of the confidence they need to say that things are fine and that there’s no reason not to kill a bunch more striped bass.
Back in 2011, anglers’ worries about a declining striped bass stock led the Management Board to consider an addendum that would have paved the way for reducing harvest before the last benchmark assessment was completed. The Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update 2011 confirmed the anglers’ concerns, indicating a declining stock that might well become overfished in the near future.
Even so, the effort to reduce landings stalled in November 2011, just before a draft amendment went out for public comment. The Striped Bass Management Board chose to postpone action until the completion of the benchmark stock assessment, because the management triggers included in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass had not yet been tripped, and so no action was required.
Today, two of those management triggers have been tripped, fishing mortality targets have been exceeded in multiple years and the stock is well below target biomass, with nearly a coin-toss chance that it became overfished last year.
A new benchmark stock assessment will be undertaken next year.
Yet, because a stock assessment update, which was never subject to peer review, suggested that the biomass was slightly larger than previously believed, people are now falling all over each other to increase the kill, not only before the next benchmark assessment occurs, but before management measures imposed to comply with the last benchmark assessment can even be evaluated.
It always seems that the ASMFC folks are quicker to kill fish than they are to conserve them.
At the November 2015 Management Board meeting, Robert O’Reilly, who represents the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC), seemed appalled at maintaining a steady course until the next benchmark assessment is released in 2018, saying
“I don’t recall being told that a benchmark assessment would take us to the next management regime…Management can certainly take place without a benchmark.
“I really don’t understand where the benchmark is coming from. I would like to be able to speak for some of the coastal states as to what they think about the situation of waiting until 2018…I know within the Chesapeake Bay we were to a point where we all thought—I did not think one year. I thought we adopted a plan for a two-year approach to be re-evaluated and go from there…”
I was at the October 2014 meeting, and listened pretty closely, and I don't recall hearing anyone say that the Addendum IV measures would only last for two years.
In fact, given the break awarded to Chesapeake Bay—a 20.5% reduction in harvest, instead of the 25% cut imposed on the rest of us—it probably would take Chesapeake fishermen two years just to get their fishing mortality down to target levels.
That, I remember hearing…
Patrick Keliher, the fisheries director from Maine, got it right.
“The ink has [not] even dried on this plan yet. We don’t even have the results of the regulatory actions that were taken last year by all the [states] in place. I think this is very premature…
“…Mr. O’Reilly talked about a trickle of fish coming to the coast. It is going to take a lot more than a trickle to positively impact the State of Maine…”
It’s going to take more than a trickle to positively impact the rest of the coastal states, too.
However, if Maryland, the PRFC, New Jersey and Delaware get their way—and given ASMFC’s track record, that could very well happen—a trickle may be all that we get, unless we speak long and loud against any addendum that might emerge from the Management Board this February.