Monday, October 8, 2018
ZELDIN WILL WIN HIS WAR AGAINST THE STRIPED BASS--UNLESS WE CAN STOP HIM
As long-time readers of this blog know, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-New York) has been waging a war on striped bass, attempting to increase harvest for a handful of for-hire boats in his eastern Long Island district without regard to the impacts that would have on the striped bass population.
His war has been waged with a series of bills that ranged from an inane attempt to redraw the bounds of the Exclusive Economic Zone for fisheries purposes, an effort that would have actually drawn the boundary between state and federal waters through the southeast corner of Block Island, to a stealth effort to deny funding for law enforcement of the ban on fishing for striped bass in federal waters off Block Island, so that his district’s population of poachers could fish without fear of apprehension.
All of those efforts were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, one of them, the pro-poaching funding ban, gave rise to a provision in the 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to consider allowing striped bass harvest in the so-called “Transit Zone” between Block Island and the mainland.
Given the current Secretary of Commerce, who seems bent on wringing the most dead fish possible out of our ocean, regardless of its effect on fish stocks (remember what he did with New Jersey fluke and Gulf of Mexico red snapper), it’s probably not surprising that NMFS is moving forward quickly on a regulation that will achieve Zeldin’s goal of opening the “Transit Zone” to striped bass angling.
On Thursday, October 4, the NOAA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register, titled “Fisheries of the United States; Regulations for Striped Bass Fishing in the Block Island Transit Zone.” Such notice says, in part, that
“…The Transit Zone is defined in NMFS regulations as the area of Federal waters within Block Island Sound, located in areas south of Montauk Point, New York, and Point Judith, Rhode Island. The Transit Zone area is unique because it is a small area of Federal waters (Block Island Sound) substantially bounded by state waters (Long Island, New York on one side, Block Island, Rhode Island on another, and the mainland of Connecticut and Rhode Island on a third side).
“NMFS is considering revising current regulations to authorize recreational fishing in the Block Island Transit Zone. This would allow recreational fishermen to harvest, retain, and transport striped bass within the Block Island Transit Zone…”
On its face, the proposal doesn’t look very bad. It would merely open up a small piece of water to striped bass angling, while the rest of the EEZ remained closed.
However, as so often is the case, appearances can be deceiving.
The Montauk for-hire fleet has been pushing for this sort of regulation for years, because they know that the area within the Transit Zone is loaded with striped bass for much of the season. Allowing fishing within the Transit Zone will allow the Montauk boats, along with boats from neighboring ports in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, to substantially increase their kill, particularly in the summer, when striped bass sometimes grow scarce in warm inshore waters.
Thus, there is no question that opening the Transit Zone will increase striped bass mortality, at a time when, according to an ASMFC staff memo that accompanied the last stock assessment update,
“[Spawning stock biomass] was estimated at 58,853 metric tons (129 million pounds) which is above the SSB threshold of 57,626 metric tons, but below the SSB target of 72,032 metric tons…
“Total abundance (age 1+) increased to 195 million fish by 2012 due primarily to the abundant 2011 year-class from the Chesapeake Bay. Total abundance dropped in 2013 as the small 2012 year-class recruited to the population. Abundance increased slightly in 2014 to 127 million fish, and in 2015 total abundance was estimated at 180 million fish. Abundance of age 8+ fish has declined since 2012 and is expected to drop slightly in 2016.”
In other words, at the time of the update, the stock was a lot closer to being overfished than it was to being fully rebuilt, and the number of larger, fecund females was still dropping.
That doesn’t seem to be the right time to increase bass harvest, particularly given the fact that the Block Island area is known for large numbers of big female fish, and it is those fish, which are so important to the future of the population, which will be the primary target of anglers in the Transit Zone.
“…why would anyone consider opening up more real estate to fishing for striped bass when its pretty darn obvious that the stock is not as healthy as it could be? While I am not suggesting it here today, the logical step in a scenario such as that is to actually limit where and when one could harvest striped bass, not to expand upon it…”
Yet the increased kill around Block Island will probably not be the worst result of the proposed regulation.
Block Island isn’t the only place that anglers want to catch striped bass in the EEZ, and anglers aren’t the only fishermen who want to catch them. To again quote Tony Lapinski,
“If anglers are complaining about where the current line is drawn, then it is likely that somewhere down the line a group of anglers will come forward about the new line and we’ll be back at square one.”
For many years, Massachusetts fishermen targeted striped bass on the Stellwagen Bank, and in various rips off Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands, all of which are located in the EEZ. A lot of those fishermen would like to get their old waters back.
But there is another area which, if opened up, could have far more dire implications for the future of the striped bass population, and that is the EEZ off Virginia and North Carolina, where a large proportion of the Chesapeake Bay spawning stock spends the winter. There is a lot of sentiment for opening the EEZ down there, so that the local charter boat fleet can get a crack at all of the big, pre-spawn females. As an article in the Carteret County [North Carolina] News-Times noted,
“In 2009 North Carolina asked President Barak Obama to address the prohibition of fishing for striped bass in federal waters, emphasizing that striped bass do not know where the three-mile boundary is and that warmer winters push the fish offshore beyond three miles. Large stripers migrate south during fall and winter from their summer habitat in the northeast, where they often live within three miles. The main harvest opportunity for oceanic striped bass fishermen from Virginia and North Carolina is during these ‘cold months.’ Even though North Carolina helped restore the population, its fishermen were losing access to this well-managed resource.”
It’s not hard to believe that, should the Block Island Transit Zone be opened to striped bass angling, fishermen down in Virginia and North Carolina will be seeking to have access to their section of the EEZ, too.
Such EEZ opening might not matter too much if striped bass were a federally-managed species, governed by hard-poundage annual catch limits. But striped bass are managed by ASMFC, with “soft” fishing mortality rate targets for anglers, and such mortality rates aren’t even calculated from one year to the next. Thus, the stock could experience serious overfishing, or even become overfished, for years before the problem is even detected. And once it is, there is no legal mechanism that might be used to force ASMFC to act. Tautog, for example, were overfished for nearly two decades before ASMFC decided to take meaningful action, and even then, it decided to allow overfishing to continue in Long Island Sound until 2029.
As a paper written by a Sea Grant Law Fellow at Rhode Island’s Roger Williams University concluded, with respect to an earlier bill to open the Transit Zone,
“…regardless of the current population status of the striped bass, [opening the Block Island Transit Zone to striped bass fishing] offers very little conservation. It is likely that there will be economic benefits and navigational clarity from opening these waters, but it is also important to ensure that these benefits can be sustained overtime. Thus, perhaps if [each state] created a yearly quota for recreational fishing, as it has in commercial fishing, this could ensure that the striped bass would be protected, while still allowing fishermen more jurisdictional opportunities to fish for the species.”
But don’t hold your breath waiting for ASMFC to adopt hard-poundage quotas for recreational fishermen.
And don’t be foolish to believe that only anglers will want in on the action if the EEZ opens up.
Currently, commercial fishing for striped bass in the EEZ is prohibited by an executive order signed by President George W. Bush. But does anyone believe that the current president, who eagerly issued an order to shrink national monuments, and allowed the Pebble Mine permitting process to continue up in Bristol Bay, would hesitate to issue an executive order allowing commercial striped bass harvest in the EEZ?
Any opportunity to further exploit natural resources, including striped bass, is likely to meet with the administration’s approval.
It’s not hard to believe that the proposed opening of the Block Island Transit Zone to anglers will soon lead to the opening of the entire EEZ to all striped bass fishermen. It’s not even hard to believe that’s where the current advanced notice of proposed rulemaking will eventually lead.
Thus, Zeldin’s goal of opening the EEZ inshore of Block Island to striped bass harvest will result in a serious assault on the striped bass population. That assault may be nearly impossible to stop, but we at least need to try.
It’s very possible that, in their resistance to allow striped bass fishing in the EEZ, anglers will be fighting alone.
The last time such an opening was suggested, groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association and American Sportfishing Association opposed it. Today, given their mantra of increased “access” for anglers, there is no guarantee that they won’t support the opening—or remain completely silent—this time around. Opening the EEZ to striped bass angling would be very much in accord with the goals of increased recreational harvest, and increased sales of boats and fishing supplies, that they have constantly repeated in their efforts to pass the so-called “Modern Fish Act.”
But I don’t want to put words in their mouth. While they have been silent on the issue so far, they still have a chance to come down on the side of the striped bass and striped bass anglers, and voice opposition to the opening.
Let’s hope that they do.
But until that happens, if it happens, we’re on our own.
NOAA will only be accepting written comments on the issue. Unlike previous times the issue was raised, they aren’t holding public hearings anywhere on the coast, which may say a lot about where this is headed.
But still, if we don’t fight at all, we’re certain to lose. Our only slim hope is to comment against the proposed regulation, and convince everyone that we know to do the same thing.
You may send in your comments electronically, to www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2018-0106. Once at that address, click on the “Comment now!” icon, complete the required fields, and type or attach your comments.
You may also send in your comments by mail. Address them to Kelly Denit, Division Chief, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, 1315 East-West Highway, SSMC3, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Identify the issue by including the heading “NOAA-NMFS-2018-0106” in a line just above the comments themselves. Such comments can also be faxed to Kelly Denit at 301-713-1193.
It is essential that we flood NMFS with our remarks.
For, to quote Toby Lapinski one final time,
“Regardless of which side of the fence on this subject you fall, now is the time to make your voice heard. I can say with absolute certainty that those who have a monetary stake in this game will get involved, let’s make sure that an even voice is heard and that all sides of the argument are considered…When this shakes out in a few months, for better or for worse, the last thing I want to hear is masses of people complaining that things didn’t go the way they wanted, and then come to find out that they simply sat on their collective hands when there was an opportunity to be heard.”
That pretty much says it all.