Sunday, July 31, 2016


This week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board will meet to determine state compliance with Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan, which was supposed to reduce fishing mortality coastwide by 25%, when compared to such mortality in 2013.  The rule for Chesapeake Bay was a little different; there, because of certain actions already taken in the region, the Bay jurisdictions were required to cut landings by 20.5%, when compared to 2012.

As part of the management process, ASMFC issued a 2016 Review of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which reviewed each state’s landings and measured such states’ compliance with Addendum IV.

It is an interesting document that contains some good, some bad and some ambiguous news; such news is worded in very careful ways.

The good news is that, over all, there were meaningful reductions in fishing mortality. 

The coastal commercial fishery reduced harvest by 32.6% compared to 2013, which was a good thing.  All states except Rhode Island managed to keep landings below their individual quotas.  Rhode Island exceeded its quota by a modest amount, not quite 7,000 pounds’ the state’s commercial fishermen were held fully accountable for that overage, with the excess landings deducted from their 2016 quota.

Chesapeake Bay’s commercial fishermen also stayed within their quota.  2015 landings were 24.2% below landings in 2012.

There was also good news with respect to coastal recreational landings.  Harvest was down 41% compared to 2013, although how much of that was due to the regulations, and how much due to reduced angling effort brought about by an absence of bass, is open to debate.  Nearly all the states managed to reduce their landings by at least 25%.  The one exception was, to no one’s surprise, New Jersey, which always seems to convince the relevant Technical Committee to let it adopt “conservation equivalent” regulations that allow Garden State anglers to kill more fish than their peers in other states and shirk their responsibilities to help conserve the stock.

However, the greatest failure was that of Chesapeake Bay anglers.  They were supposed to decrease their landings by 20.5%; they ended up increasing their landings by 52.4% instead.  And a significant percentage of those fish were between 18 and 22 inches (fork length) long, strongly suggesting that they were from the big 2011 year class that, according to the most recent benchmark stock assessment, is supposed to play a meaningful role in rebuilding the stock.

Killing too many of those fish is clearly not good.  The question is, what is anyone going to do about it.

It doesn’t appear that ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team is recommending remedial action.  It states in its 2016 Review that

“each state and jurisdiction implemented a management program for 2015 consistent with the requirements of Amendment 6 and Addenda I-IV.”
Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t.  It all depends on what one means by “consistent with the requirements of Amendment 6 and Addenda I-IV.”

If one means adopting recreational regulations that are the same as, or adjudged equivalent to, those included in the final version of Addendum IV, then the statement is perfectly correct.

On the other hand, if one means actually getting the job done in practice, not just on paper, and reducing recreational harvest 25% on the coast and 20.5% in Chesapeake Bay, then some states’ regulations aren’t consistent with Addendum IV at all.

The question is, what is ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board going to do about it?  

If it was up to the State of Maryland, they would increase the kill and reward that state's anglers for not reducing their harvest, by giving them even more fish.  Last December, Mike Luisi, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, told a Striped Bass Management Board meeting that

“I’ve heard the word ‘crisis’ from my stakeholders.  The charter, the recreational and the commercial industry are all suffering greatly as a result of the reductions that we’ve taken…
“This board gave us the opportunity in the Chesapeake Bay to seek a lesser reduction of 20.5 percent.  We implemented measures to achieve that 20.5 percent.  What we’ve been hearing through Wave 4 on the recreational harvest indicates that we’re grossly over that 20.5…
“I can’t sit back and explain to people in my state that we’re going to hold the line and we’re going to wait until 2019 before any consideration would be given to making corrections given that there was no socioeconomic evaluation of these reductions, fishing mortality was at the target, given the latest best available science.”
To be fair, a 2015 update to the benchmark stock assessment did paint a rosier picture than did the benchmark assessment itself.  While the benchmark assessment made it appear extremely likely that the stock would be overfished at some point in 2015, the 2015 update reduced the likelihood of overfishing to a mere 49%...

Fishing mortality, on the other hand, at 0.205, was a little closer to threshold (0.219) then target (0.180).

But what is really striking about the Maryland statement is how wrong the basic premise was.

While the commercial sector did accept a real reduction in landings, it’s hard to understand how Maryland anglers experienced a “crisis” and were “suffering” as a result of regulations that allowed their landings to increase by 50%.

And as far as Maryland’s recreational harvest reductions being “grossly” more than 20.5%, well, the data shows us that the only thing grossly out of hand was the level of misrepresentation.

One has to wonder whether representatives of the state feel any shame when they try to present a 50% increase in landings as a “crisis” resulting in “suffering,” and try to use it to justify an increased kill.

And since that 50% increase over what Maryland caught in 2012 represents a nearly 100% increase over what Maryland should have landed in 2015, one also has to wonder whether anyone will hold Maryland accountable for killing far too many striped bass.

Think about it.  

Rhode Island commercial striped bass fishermen exceeded their state quota by less than 4%, and are going to have those fish subtracted from their quota this year.  Maryland recreational striped bass fishermen exceeded their target by about 95%.  

Is it right that they should get off scott-free, willing and able to overfish once again in 2017?

I’m not suggesting that they pay back their overage; if they did, they wouldn’t fish at all in the upcoming season.  But it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Management Board to compel Maryland to adopt new regulations that will actually have a chance of achieving a 20.5% reduction, instead of an increase, in landings.

New Jersey presents a far less egregious, but still objectionable, situation.  

The state was allowed to adopt regulations that supposedly had “conservation equivalency” to a one-fish bag and 28-inch minimum size.  On paper, perhaps they did.  But after a year of on-the-water experience, it’s clear that not only did New Jersey fail to reduce its harvest by the minimum 25%, but that its landings reduction was far less than that of nearby states that hewed to the 1 fish at 28 inches standard.

That makes it pretty clear that the New Jersey rules are not “equivalent” to the standard adopted in Addendum IV, and provides solid ground for the Management Board to refuse to allow the state to follow the same regulations next year.  It should be either compelled to adhere to the 1-fish, 28-inch standard, or come up with rules more likely to truly have a similar impact on harvest.

Whether ASMFC does take action to rein in such state excesses will tell us whether it truly believes in states sharing the burdens and benefits of fisheries management or, whether George Orwell’s Animal Farm had it right, and

“all animals are equal but some animals [including fish hogs] are more equal than others.”

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