Thursday, August 15, 2019

2020: APPROACHING THE TIPPING POINT FOR INSHORE FISHERIES

I’ve asked the question before.

Will there come a point where fish stocks decline to a level that makes anglers decide to stay home?  And if there is, how long will it take to reach it?

Could it happen as soon as next year? 

Is it already happening now?

I started wondering that a few weeks ago, when I was invited to ride along with a group of anglers, press and other folks that New York’sGovernor, Andrew Cuomo, put together, to celebrate the placement of additionalmaterial on the artificial reef that lies a couple of miles south of the FireIsland lighthouse.  We boarded a boat at Captree State Park, and ran out to the ocean through Fire Island Inlet.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon.  Only a few clouds drifted across an otherwise clear sky; the temperature was in the 80s, the winds refreshing and light.  It was, in short, the sort of day that had inspired hordes of casual anglers to come out and fish for as long as I’ve lived on the South Shore of Long Island.  

On a typical August afternoon, boats transiting Fire Island Inlet are faced with a virtual slalom course, where private fishing boats, party boats, cruisers, partiers and jet skis—and even the occasional kayak—clog the marked channel and force any responsible boater to throttle down while wending a way through the assembled vessels.

It gets bad enough that when I’m returning home from offshore, even when the ocean is unkind and I’ve spent the last forty miles white-knuckling my way back to the inlet through sheets of spray, I feel most uncomfortable, and most at risk, once I’m back inside the sea buoy and running the last few miles back to my dock through the crowded inlet and bay.

But that Saturday afternoon, despite near-perfect weather, the inlet was largely empty.

Yes, there were the usual jet skis speeding around, and there was a small flotilla of pleasure boats anchored up at the beach at Democrat Point, Fire Island’s westernmost end.  There were some beachgoers' boats anchored off the Sore Thumb and Oak Beach on the other side of the inlet as well, and a few others joyriding around.  But fishermen were notably absent.  I’m not sure that I saw more than two dozen or so private fishing boats in the more than two miles of inlet that stretches from the Robert Moses Bridge to the open Atlantic.

It wasn’t weather that kept the boats at the dock, and August 3rd isn’t a holiday weekend; that early in the month, students are still home from college, and the back-to-school shopping hasn’t kicked in.  About the only reasonable explanation for the lack fo fishermen was the notable lack of fish.

The August fishery around Fire Island is all about fluke—or, more properly, summer flounder.  They’re the fish that drives summer bait and tackle sales, and brings out the family fishermen who don’t want to go through the trouble of fishing offshore, even on nearby wrecks, but only seek to drift through the inlet and bay.  Typically, the casual anglers pay little attention to time, current or tide, but reliably leave the dock around 11:00 a.m., and come home in time for dinner.  Most of them hope to bring home a keeper or two, often fail in that ambition, but still keep heading out, just wanting to have a good time.

The problem is that when you go out fishing, it’s hard to have a good time if you don’t catch very much, something that’s particularly true when you have short attention span children on board who expect angling action to be as consistent as pop-ups in a video game.  Lately, the fluke fishing around Fire Island, and on most of the rest of Long Island, hasn't been anywhere close to that good.

That doesn’t mean that a decent angler, or a good party boat captain, can’t find a few fish; in most cases, they can and will.  It does mean that for causal weekend anglers, who give little thought to when or why fish are likely to bite, the odds of accidentally catching a decent fish or two start getting forbiddingly high--high enough that more and more of the weekend crowd doesn’t fish too much any more.


Maybe that’s just an aberration.  Maybe the estimate is wrong.  Maybe the effort numbers will pop right back up in 2019.

But from what I’m seeing on the water, I’m not so sure that’s going to happen.



“declines in survey indices suggest that current mortality from all sources is greater than current recruitment inputs to the stock.  If recruitment improves, current catches may allow the stock to increase, but if recruitment remains low or decreases further, then reductions in catch will be necessary.  [emphasis added]”
A further decline in the fluke population would give weekend anglers even less reason to leave the dock.  And even if recruitment improves, it will take at least four years, and in some cases five, for the fish to grow large enough to meet New York’s 19-inch minimum size.

There aren’t a lot of fish around to take up the slack left behind by declining summer flounder abundance.

As we all know by now, striped bass are both overfished and subject to overfishing.  I went down to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Meeting last week, to sit in on the striped bass management board’s deliberations.  It looks as if it will take at least an 18% reduction in fishing mortality just to get overfishing under control; at the meeting, the management board was informed that it would almost certainly take even greater reductions to rebuild the stock within ten years, as required by the management plan.

So don’t expect an abundance of bass to make up for a shortage of fluke, as they did two decades ago.

While I was at the ASMFC meeting, I was passing time speaking to a Commission staffer, who mentioned that an update to the bluefish stock assessment, which will be released in September, suggests that bluefish are also overfished, so don’t expect the once-ubiquitous bluefish to take the place of the missing fluke and stripers, because in many times and places, bluefish are missing, too.

So if you’re an inshore fisherman, the old standbys—blues, bass and fluke—aren't likely to keep you busy at any time soon.  There won’t be any winter flounder to be caught in the spring or in the fall, and although blackfish (a/k/a “tautog”) will be around, they remain overfished in New York waters; up in Long Island Sound, the ASMFC will let overfishing continue until 2029, and no one is even trying to predict when the stock might be rebuilt.  Nobody is catching spring mackerel in Long Island Sound, and herring are scarce on the winter piers.

Inshore fishing is, in short, pretty bad through most of the year.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any bright spots.  Black sea bass remain very abundant, particularly on the eastern part of Long Island, although many of the fish caught are very small.  Once the season has been open for a few weeks, even good wreck fishermen often have problems finding fish over two pounds, and sometimes can’t even put together a limit of barely-legal 15-inchers.

Scup are abundant, too, but much of that abundance is regional, with Long Island Sound and the East End seeming more fish than most of the South Shore.

Beyond that, there are signs that weakfish might be returning from the dead.  Here on the South Shore of Long Island, it seems as if there have been two better year classes.  One consists of fish in the 3 to 5 pound class, while the other consists of younger individuals that don’t yet meet the state’s 16-inch minimum size.  While the abundance doesn’t come close to matching the big year classes of the early 1970s, or even the early 1990s, the fact that weakfish seem to be showing any signs of life is a good sign.

In the ocean, a growing abundance of chub mackerel and red hake (locally called “ling”) are keeping many anglers active.  Ling are a traditional part of Long Island’s fishery, although they have historically been targeted during the winter, usually as a substitute for or an adjunct to cod.  They’re a good-tasting fish, but the meat tends to be soft and falls apart easily, particularly if the fish aren’t iced down immediately after being caught.  In the end, they’re more sought-after for fish cakes than for fillets.

Chub mackerel, on the other hand, have historically been an irregular visitor to Long Island.  But in recent years, perhaps as a result of a warming ocean, they have become far more abundant, with big schools sometimes found throughout New York’s inshore ocean.  Yet, while they’re abundant, most anglers don't eat tham.  One seafood website describes the flesh as “red” and “oily,” with a “rich and strong” flavor, which doesn’t recommend them to people used to white, mild-tasting fish such as cod, flounder and striped bass.  

So as we look ahead to next season, we’re probably looking at a year when striped bass, fluke and bluefish will be harder to find than they are today, with more restrictive regulations likely to be placed on the bass stock, and possibly, if not probably, on other species as well.  There will be no winter flounder, not too many blackfish, and few Atlantic mackerel or herring.

There should be lots of scup and black sea bass, and probably good numbers of ling and chub mackerel.  There might be a few weakfish, but inshore, that will be just about it.

The question is, will scup, black sea bass and the other odds and ends be enough to keep the inshore fishery alive?

Will people be willing to make the sacrifices needed to rebuild depleted populations, or will they fight regulations and, in that way, make it even more likely that the inshore fishery will keep headed downhill?

And will 2020 be the year when things get so bad that most boats just stay tied to their docks?

Time will tell. 


Sunday, August 11, 2019

WINTER FISHERY HARD ON RELEASED BLACK SEA BASS

Slowly, salt water anglers have gotten used to regulation.

While size limits, bag limits and seasons have been a feature of fresh water fisheries management for a century or more, they are relative newcomers to the ocean, particularly in the Northeast.  When I was a boy growing up on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound during the 1960s, the only regulation we had was a 16-inch minimum size on striped bass, and a prohibition on its commercial sale.  Neighboring states had a similar limit, but sale of striped bass was allowed.

And those were the only rules that we saw for a very long time.  Beginning in the 1970s, when fluke began to be regularly caught in the western Sound, we had to remember that fish caught on the New York side were subject to a 14-inch minimum size, and late in that decade, when I started fishing offshore, there was a 4-fish per person bag on bluefin tuna.  But other than that, saltwater fish in our region went largely unregulated until the striped bass collapse of the late 1970s and early 1980s focused folks’ attention on the need to manage inshore stocks, and the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 forced fishery managers to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, something that couldn’t be done without meaningful regulation.

In many cases, the regulations, no matter how badly needed, weren’t welcomed by the angling community, who had gotten used to their unrestricted, freebooting ways.  But over time, most anglers have grudgingly accepted the regulatory process, understanding the need to limit harvest at the same time that many wish that their own harvest wasn’t limited quite so much.

Anglers have accepted the notion that size limits, bag limits and seasons are needed to regulate landings, but what they are still having some trouble with is the notion that some portion of the fish that they let go, either because the law says that they have to, or because they want to do it to help maintain the stock, are also going to die, and need to be considered when managers set annual limits.

Their understanding isn’t helped by the fact that estimates of such “discard mortality” usually represent the average number of fish that won’t survive release, and that the number can vary wildly, depending on multiple factors, including where a fish was hooked, how long it fought, water temperature, salinity, and how long it was kept out of the water.

Anglers do understand that a fish hooked in the gills, that comes to the boat with lines of blood streaming down its side, is likely to die if released.  And most understand that fighting a big fish too long, so that it comes to the boat exhausted, lying on its side and almost floating, is going to hurt that fish’s chances for survival.  And, more and more, today’s anglers are learning to fish in ways that promote released fishes’ survival.

But many anglers have a problem controlling, or even comprehending, other sources of mortality.  


Barotrauma provides a challenge to anglers and fishery managers, because it is often impossible to catch some species and not have the fish fall victim to it.  In such cases, size limits do little good, as most undersized fish don’t survive when returned to the water; bag limits face similar problems, and make restrictive seasons one of the only tools that address the problem—and they only work if there are no other fish in the area that anglers will still be able to fish for; otherwise, the protected species will still be caught and killed, even though their season is closed.

In the case of badly overfished species, complete area closures may b e the only way to afford them enough protection.

Such closures were either imposed or proposed in some Pacific rockfish fisheries and in some snapper/grouper fisheries in the South Atlantic, actions which thrust barotrauma into the angling press and into anglers’ attention.

Here in the Northeast, angler-induced barotrauma isn’t threatening any badly overfished species, and isn’t leading regulators to consider any area closures, so it is generally ignored by the average angler.  But that doesn’t mean that barotrauma isn’t causing a lot of discard mortality in Northeastern fisheries.

One of the worst-affected is probably black sea bass.

When they’re caught inshore, either in the bays or on shallow ocean structure, barotrauma isn’t an issue.  It only starts to kick in when the fish are caught in 15 fathoms or more, but at that point, it becomes a rapidly increasing source of black sea bass mortality.  And the line between no barotrauma at all and significant losses seems to be very thin.

One of the wrecks that I fish lies in about 85 feet of water.  I’ve caught many hundreds of sea bass there, and the only one that didn’t immediately turn nose-down and speed back to the bottom had had its tail cut off by a bluefish (I think) some time ago, and couldn’t overcome its slightly inflated swim bladder with the remaining stub.

Another wreck lies just about 10 feet deeper, in 95 feet.  When I fish on that piece, about one in four sea bass released ends up floating away, instead of returning to the depths.  A lot of those will decompress enough, just a few minutes later, to make their way back down, but I’ve also seen enough float away to make me feel guilty, stop fishing there, and refuse to fish on a deeper piece until I could figure out a way to prevent such waste.

At the same time, black sea bass support an active late fall/winter/early spring fishery that targets them in much deeper water, sometimes over 200 feet.  The barotrauma losses in that fishery are severe enough to get the regulators’ attention.  When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Addendum XXX to its summer flounder, scup and black sea bass management plan in February 2018, it included, for the first time, a management approach that

“allows for a performance evaluation process that better incorporates biological information and efforts to reduce discard mortality into the metrics used for evaluation and management response by evaluating fisheries performance against the [annual catch limit].  This approach integrates information from the 2016 assessment into the management process, enhances the angling experience of the recreational community, improves the reporting of recreational information, and achieves meaningful reductions in discard mortality to better inform management responses to changes in the condition of this resource.”
Of course, in order to incorporate discard mortality into the management process, managers must know what the mortality rate actually is.  For many years, managers assumed that 15% of all released sea bass did not survive, and while that assumed rate might have been fine, or even overstated discard losses in the inshore fishery, most people who thought about the issue realized that the release mortality in the deep water fishery was probably far worse.
But they didn’t know for certain.

Recently, a study conducted at Rutgers University strongly suggests that most black sea bass released in the winter fishery do not survive.  The project, titled “Estimating and mitigating the discard mortality of the black sea bass in offshore recreational rod-and-reel fisheries,” was performed by the Partnership for Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Science.  It involved catching black sea bass on traditional hook-and-line gear during the winter, at depths typical for the winter fishery, fitting them with standard plastic and/or acoustic tags, and releasing them back into the water.  Half of the released fish were “vented,” meaning that their swim bladders were punctured to allow them to return to the bottom; the other fish were released without venting taking place.

The researchers found that, upon release

“black sea bass exhibited four release behaviors including erratic swimming, sinking, floating, or swimming down, with the vast majority exhibiting the latter two behaviors…fish total length, capture depth, venting and the presence of exopthalmia  [bulging eyes resulting from barotrauma] influenced release behavior, with larger fish, that were not vented, caught at deeper depths and experienced exopthalmia had a lower probability of swimming down.”
The study estimated

“mean discard mortality rates of 21% for vented and 52% for unvented black sea bass following capture and release in 45 m [about 150 foot] depth.  Given that venting is not commonly practiced in the fishery, the 52% estimate for unvented fish is more representative of the current discard mortality rate when the fishery operates at (or near) this depth.  However, due to increased fight times, the discard mortality rate is expected to be higher at greater depths.”
Yes, more than half of the black sea bass released in the winter fishery die.

Such 52% discard mortality rate is more than three times higher than the rate assumed in the black sea bass stock assessment, and used by managers to determine overall fishing mortality.  Although the deep-water black sea bass fishery sees much less effort than the warm-weather, shallow-water fishery, it produces mortality rates that are entirely disproportionate to the number of participating anglers.

That might lead to the conclusion that the deep-water fishery is too costly, in terms of discard mortality, to justify its continued existence, as the fish lost to discard mortality during the winter season could, instead, be converted into fish harvested during the primary summer/early fall fishing season.


An alternative to venting is the use of a weighted “descending device” that attaches to the fish and carries it down to a depth where the pressure is great enough to allow it to again swim freely.  There are a number of such devices available, which can be as simple as an upside-down milk crate on a rope, weighted on all four corners, that is used to force the fish down to the required depth, or as elaborate as the “SeaQualizer” that I have begun using when fishing on deeper wrecks, which holds the fish’s jaw in a spring-loaded device that pops open upon reaching a pre-set depth.

Yes, venting or using a descender does take a little bit of time out of each fishing day.

But if anglers wish to continue participating in fisheries such as the winter fishery for black sea bass, where barotrauma is currently causing a substantial waste of the resource, the use of venting tools or descending devices seems to be a very small price to pay for the privilege.



Friday, August 9, 2019

SMALL SIGNS OF HOPE AT ASMFC'S STRIPED BASS MEETING


Yesterday, I sat in on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board meeting, to see how they would address ending overfishing and rebuilding the stock.

I didn’t have high hopes.  There were enough rumors, comments and bits of hard information going around to suggest that that little was going to be done to return the bass stock to health, and that some state representatives, including those from Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware, would be pushing for measures that were likely to do real harm to the stock in the long run.

Fortunately, things turned out better than that.

The primary goal of the meeting was to discuss and approve a draft of Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, and release that draft for public comment.  The addendum is badly needed, as striped bass are both overfished and subject to overfishing, and the addendum is intended to end fishing mortality and reduce it to or below the target mortality rate.

Right now, fishery managers believe that in order to achieve that goal, overall fishing mortality will have to be reduced by 18 percent.  Such level of reduction only has a 50% probability of achieving that goal, which is cutting things a bit close, given the amount of uncertainty that is always inherent in even the best fisheries data. Usually, such an indifferent chance of success receives little attention, but that wasn’t the case today.

Nearly as soon as the meeting opened, Robert O’Reilly, a Virginia fisheries manager, asked why the standard was set so low, and why something higher—perhaps a 75% probability of success, wasn’t also considered.  The answer—that the 50% probability of success was set by a Management Board motion last May—was one of those responses that is both completely correct and completely unsatisfying at the same time, for it failed to answer the question of why the Management Board settled for so low a figure in the first place.

Mostly, it seemed, they did it out of habit, because that’s the standard that they generally use.

Given the importance of getting some sort of fishing mortality reduction in place for the 2020 season, it turned out to be too late in the process to suggest new measures that would have a higher probability of reducing such mortality to the target level. 

While that may disappoint a lot of concerned striped bass anglers who petitioned their ASMFC representatives to up the odds for a successful reduction, it’s important to note that Mr. O’Reilly specifically mentioned the number of letters that he received from stakeholders concerned with the probability issue. 

In fact, various Management Board members made reference to the letters that they received on various issues a number of times throughout the meeting, so don’t doubt that we are being heard.  However, this time, we made our big push a little too late in the process.  If we had made the same comments in May, we might have had a real chance to shift the outcome.

So we need to begin earlier next time.

Max Appelman, the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, also cast some additional light on the probability-of-success issue when he informed the Management Board that ASMFC is working on a risk policy document that will hopefully provide a little more structure to the discussion.  We should see a copy of that document fairly soon.

Probability issues aside, the draft Addendum VI provides a reasonable approach to addressing the overfishing issue.  The problem with the draft addendum is that it complexly ignores the management plan’s requirement that the overfished stock be rebuilt within ten years. 

But that failure, too, was challenged by a number of Management Board members, most particularly Andy Shiels, the proxy for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, who read a section of Amendment 6 to the management plan which requires that, when the stock becomes overfished, the board “must” adopt a plan to rebuild it within the specified time.

Toward the end of the meeting, Mr. Shiels emphasized his displeasure with the lack of a rebuilding plan, saying

“We’re only going out to the public with half of the story,”
and expressed his belief that, in putting out an addendum that didn’t include a rebuilding plan, the board was violating the provisions of Amendment 6.

Again, it’s too bad that such discussion didn’t happen at the May meeting, when there would have been a chance to get rebuilding measures into the draft addendum.  As it was, the Management Board was unable to add measures to rebuild the stock within ten years to draft Addendum VI, for if they instructed the Plan Development Team to do so this late in the game, it would have been just about impossible to get any harvest reductions in place for the 2020 season.

However, Mr. Appelman did note, in his initial comments to the Management Board, that harvest reductions beyond those included in the draft addendum would probably be necessary to meet the ten-year rebuilding deadline.  

Throughout the course of the meeting, he reminded the Management Board of their obligation to rebuild the stock within ten years, and reminded them that the clock on that ten-year deadline began running when the board received the final version of the stock assessment in May.

His insistence on reminding the Management Board of their obligation to rebuild the stock within ten years stands in a clear and welcome contrast to his predecessor, who actively discouraged the Management Board from meeting that obligation, and beginning a ten-year rebuilding plan, at the August Management Board meeting five years ago.

Even without a specific rebuilding plan, biologists working with ASMFC believe that, if the fishing mortality rate is successfully reduced to the target, and then maintained at that level, the female spawning stock biomass will begin to increase, and should reach target levels in about 13 years.  Thus, when a rebuilding plan is finally adopted, the rebuilding task will, hopefully, already be partially completed.

Of course, there is a lot of uncertainty in that 13-year prediction.  A few big year classes—if they’re allowed to mature—could see recovery occur a bit sooner, while consecutive years of poor recruitment could prevent any recovery at all, and perhaps even lead to further decline.  That’s what happened after the last management changes in 2014, when the previous fishery management plan coordinator assured the Management Board that the population would begin trending upward, even without a rebuilding plan, when in reality, it kept going down.

Which, in the end, is why the Management Board needs to adopt a formal rebuilding plan, and not just depend on theoretical trends.  Progress needs to be measured against defined milestones, and management measures can be amended if the recovery veers off course.  

Trying to rebuild a stock without a rebuilding plan is like running a boat into a strange harbor, at night, without the benefit of a good chart:  You might miss the rocks and the mudflats, and make it safely into the port.  But then again, you might not. 

And you don’t learn of any unseen hazards that might be lurking out there until you crash.

Some Management Board members clearly believed that the best way to rebuild the stock was by initiating a comprehensive amendment, that would bring real changes to the overall management regime.

Certainly, it could be done that way. 

But the problem of initiating a new amendment is that everything will be on the table.  It is no secret that one of the most ardent supporters of initiating an amendment process has been Michael Luisi, a fishery director from Maryland, who has repeatedly expressed his desire to lower the biomass reference points to allow higher annual landings.  Various comments made over the past year or two suggest that both New Jersey and Delaware would support such an action.

That certainly wouldn’t do the bass any good. 

At the same time, a number of New England fishery managers are also supporting a new amendment but not because they want to kill more striped bass.  Instead, they want to offer the bass more protection, and improve the science underlying management decisions.  Richard White, the Governor’s Appointee from New Hampshire, stated outright that he wanted to initiate a new amendment that would be more conservative than the current Amendment 6.

That was obviously encouraging.

Still, the amendment process is going to be a minefield for all concerned, including the bass, and will provide a lot of chances for things to go off the rails.  Whether any new amendment will emphasize greater harvest, more conservative management or, like the current Amendment 6, lie somewhere in between will probably be decided in a fairly close vote.  

Thus, it was probably good that, by a vote of 11 to 5, the Management Board decided to postpone any consideration of a new amendment until May 2020, a date that will give everyone a chance to consider all of the possible implications of initiating such an action.

That was good news, as was the fact that, after much debate, the Management Board agreed to send the draft Addendum IV out for public comment with only minor amendments.

Those were the formal actions taken at the meeting, but it was some of the discussions that, for the most part, aren’t reflected in actual votes that may have provided the most hope for the future.


Conservation equivalency can be controversial.  While it makes sense when there are biological reasons for divergent regulations along different parts of the coast (e.g., summer flounder off North Carolina tend to run smaller than those off New York, as bigger fish migrate to the north and east), some states habitually abuse it in an effort to catch more fish than their neighbors.  That was recognized by Dennis Abbot, proxy to New Hampshire’s Legislative Appointee, who made a motion to prevent its use for striped bass so long as the species was overfished or overfishing was occurring, and opined that the public ought to get the chance to weigh in on the issue.

At ASMFC, it’s not unusual for management boards to put controversial issues out for public comment, even if the majority of the board disapproves, but Mr. Abbot’s motion stirred up a hornet’s nest, particularly from the states that always seem to use it to catch more and/or smaller fish than their others in the region. 

Tom Fote, the Governor’s Appointee from New Jersey, one of only two coastal states that allows anglers to kill two bass per day (plus a third, if they get a “bonus” permit), was one of the first to attack, claiming that states have to tailor rules to the needs of their fishermen and their fisheries (but, apparently, not to the needs of their fish), and then—as he always does—invoking his preferred role as protector of poor folks fishing off banks and piers. 

Of course, all that is irrelevant to New Jersey’s striped bass regulations, which allow anglers to take one fish of at least 28 inches, but less than 43, and one over 40 inches, since the “pier fishermen” are likely catching small fish, and would be served as well by the standard 1 @ 28” (not to mention that the guys on the pier would probably be better off if regulations were tightened so that more of those 28-inchers survive long enough for them to catch). 

But I suppose that it’s easier for him to sleep at night if he sees himself as “Protector of the Poor” rather than the more honest “Friend of the Fish Hog…”

Mr. Abbot's motion on conservation equivalency came as a bit of a surprise, and a number of Management Board members spoke against it for one reason or another, and in the end it went down by a vote of 2 for, 12 against, and 1 abstention.  But the length and extent of the debate was notable, and should an amendment be initiated next spring, the casusal use of conservation equivalency is likely to get a long, hard look.

Of course, despite the findings of the stock assessment, there are always the folks who get up to say that there is no real problem.

Not surprisingly, a lot of them come from Maryland, which is constantly seeking a bigger kill.  In the public comment section of the meeting, the head of the Maryland Watermen’s Association got up to assure the Management Board that there was no problem with the striped bass stock, and that management should remain at the status quo.  

Later in the debate, Russell Dize, Maryland’s Governor’s Appointee, tried to ease people’s minds by saying

“I’ve never in all my life seen so many small striped bass…so many small rockfish in our portion of the bay that when you’re going down the trot line to get crabs, sometimes you dip small striped bass…I hear a lot of gloom and doom, but I do see a ray of sunshine…”
I suppose when your fishery sits in the middle of the most important nursery area on the coast, and it’s built around killing immature fish, seeing what you believe is a lot of small fish might seem like a “ray of sunshine.”  But when you’re out on the coast, and know that your fishery—and the future of the striped bass itself—depends on those young fish surviving their years in Maryland, getting out to the coast and recruiting into the spawning stock, the talk out of Maryland, and the attitudes expressed by the folks who fish there, aren’t a “ray of sunshine” at all.

And maybe that was the most hopeful thing that I felt at the meeting.  There seemed to be an undercurrent—not among everyone, but among most—that the sort of abuse of the fishery we’ve seen in the past can’t continue, and that no state should be entitled to kill a disproportionate share of the stock.  It wasn’t spoken—not exactly, and no fingers were pointed—but if you listened, you understood what was behind the words.

We still have a lot of work to do to get the striped bass back on track.

But after attending yesterday’s meeting, and feeling the mood of the room, I think that we have a chance to get it done.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

STRIPED BASS: A DEAFENING SILENCE



That’s been covered in newspapers, in angling magazines, and on various websites.  The lack of striped bass is a constant topic of discussion among both surf fishermen and the private-boat angling fleet.


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board is holding a meeting on August 8, to decide how to address the problem.  Ahead of that meeting, anglers have been urging each other to contact their states’ ASMFC representatives, to ask them to take meaningful action to end overfishing and rebuild the striped bass stock.  Outdoor writers along the striper coast have been echoing the same sort of advice.

But the one group that has remained deafeningly silent on the issue is the big tackle industry/boatbuilding industry/anglers’ rights coalition that claimed to be pro-conservation when they joined together to push their “Modern Fish Act” agenda last year.

Some of us claimed that such conservation talk was all smoke and mirrors, and that those organizations’ sole goal was to find a way to kill a few more federally-managed fish, in particular Gulf of Mexico red snapper.  But the industry and anglers’ rights groups bombarded us with propaganda about how much good their bill was going to do; just one year ago, it was impossible to look at any angling-related media and not see someone urging anglers to support the bill.  


“The Modern Fish Act would deliver common-sense and responsible updates to fisheries management throughout the country, including New England.  Specifically, the Modern Fish Act will bring data collection into the 21st Century, giving us better information to prevent overfishing.  This in turn will bolster conservation efforts that have been a hallmark of Magnuson-Stevens for decades.”
Now, we have overfishing occurring in one of the most important recreational fisheries in the New England/Mid-Atlantic region.  We have a real, live conservation issue playing out in the striped bass fishery, and some state fishery managers calling formeasures that could significantly, and permanently, impair the stock.  All of those organizations who talked a good conservation game last year now have a chance to get active and actually play the conservation game this year.

So do we see the New England Boat Show folks, who claimed to be so concerned about conservation, writing letters to papers about ending overfishing and rebuilding the striped bass stock?

Not that I could find.

And, taking the pressure off that one event and its staff, do we see the big boating-industry trade group, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, that was such an enthusiastic Modern Fish Act supporter, issuing even one press release in favor of striped bass conservation?

Again, not that I could find.  

NMMA does have an “Advocacy” tab on its website, but when you go to the “recreational fishing” section, the only thing I could find was some figures on the economic value of recreational fishing and more Modern Fish Act drivel.  


But a discussion of striped bass conservation was nowhere to be seen.

When we take a look at the other big industry trade group, the American Sportfishing Association, things get a little more complicated, but the end result is the same.


“includes key provisions that will adapt federal fisheries management to manage recreational fishing in a way that better achieves conservation and public access goals.  Recreational fishing provides many economic, social and conservation benefits to the nation, and with this legislation, the federal fisheries management system will better realize those benefits.”
But again, now that we’ve reached a conservation crisis point with striped bass, ASA is remarkably silent. 


“Striped bass are the lifeblood of our fishery in the Northeast, and the prohibition on striped bass harvest in the EEZ has unquestionably been an extremely valuable conservation measure.  Opening a portion of the EEZ is a step in the wrong direction for recreational anglers and could risk the future health of the striped bass stock.”
But now that such “lifeblood” is dripping away, and “the future health of the striped bass stock” is clearly in peril, where is the American Sportfishing Association? 





“we’re uncomfortable with projecting out far enough to tell you when [the female spawning stock biomass] will reach its target because the further on the projections we go the more uncertainty that is involved,”
so maybe ASA’s silence on rebuilding the overfished stock is understandable.

But it isn’t only the industry that has remained silent on a rebuilding plan.  The anglers’ rights groups haven’t exactly been at the forefront of the conservation effort.  


“a common-sense policy that remains true to our conservation goals while providing access to our nation’s healthy natural resources.”

“There had been rumors that the [Atlantic Striped Bass Management] Board would attempt to relax the current reference points—rather like moving the goal posts when you’re losing the game—rather than take the hard steps necessary to recover the stock, but the Board elected not to take the easy way out…”



Thus, a CCA staffer’s comment that

“Taking these steps to manage to the target reference point sends a strong signal that they want this population to return to its former abundance and not simply find the simplest way out of this mess”
is a substantial overstatement.

As noted above, the Management Board failed to draft a 10-year rebuilding plan five years ago, trusting that the stock would keep “trending” upwards, and that didn’t work out very well.

But CCA still isn’t mentioning that ten-year rebuilding requirement at all.

When you think about it, that makes sense.  CCA was one of the primary architects of the 2014 manifesto, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, which first articulated the ideology that gave rise to the Modern Fish Act.  That document proclaimed that

“The [National Marine Fisheries Service] should manage recreational fisheries based on long-term harvest rates, not strictly on poundage-based quotas.  This strategy has been successfully used by fisheries managers in the Atlantic striped bass fishery, which is the most sought-after recreational fishery in the nation.  By managing the recreational sector based on harvest rate as opposed to a poundage-based quota, managers have been able to provide predictability in regulations while also sustaining a healthy population.”
It also took issue with ten-year rebuilding plans, saying

“While some stocks can be rebuilt in 10 years or less, others require longer generation times, or factors unrelated to fishing pressure may prohibit rebuilding in 10 years or less…
“Instead of having a fixed deadline for stocks to be rebuilt, the [National Academy of Sciences] recommended that the regional councils and fisheries managers set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.
“The commission [that produced the document under the watchful eyes of ASA, NMMA, CCA and other related organizations] supports the National Academy of Science’s recommendations to provide the regional councils and fisheries managers greater latitude to rebuild fish stocks in a timely and reasonable manner.”
If CCA admitted the truth, it would also have to admit that its preferred approach of managing striped bass based on “long-term harvest rates” that allowed “predictability in regulations,” but didn’t take account of recruitment problems in the stock, was a leading contributor to the continued decline in the striped bass population, and ultimately resulted in the stock becoming overfished.

It would also have to admit that setting “lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts,” instead of adopting the ten-year rebuilding plan, is exactly the strategy that the Management Board adopted five years ago, which has since failed miserably.

If CCA called for a ten-year striped bass rebuilding plan, it would be effectively admitting that, for at least the last half-decade, its fisheries advocacy has been based on a false premise.

Don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

Instead, anglers who care about a healthy, sustainable and fully-rebuilt striped bass fishery are pretty much on their own.  While they might get some help from the big groups on a few issues, and one or two perceptive and forward-looking organizations, such as the American Saltwater Guides Association, will provide support, the fight to rebuild the striped bass population lies mostly on bass anglers’ shoulders.


“ASA was proud to work with a united set of organizations to support the passage of the Modern Fish Act, including the Center for Sportfishing Policy, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, International Game Fish Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance, The Billfish Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“Working together and advocating with the same message was instrumental to the bill’s success.  The bill had some expected—and unexpected—detractors along the way but having the core of the recreational fishing community speaking with a unified voice allowed Members of Congress to not have to pick sides within our community (as has sometimes been the case in the past).  They knew the Modern Fish Act had the backing of the true recreational fishing community.”
They were all willing to work together and spend untold amounts of human, financial and political capital in their effort to steal a few percentage points of quota from the commercial sector, and catch an additional red snapper or two—and even did so in the name of conservation.

But when the striped bass is facing real problems, not one of them was willing to dedicate far, far less time and money to the cause of timely rebuilding the overfished stock.  

Their silence has been deafening.

This time, striped bass fishermen are completely on their own.

If the Management Board can be convinced to adopt a rebuilding stock for striped bass, and not put the population at further risk, it’s up to us to get the job done.