Thursday, February 28, 2019
On February 21, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it would no longer manage Atlantic cobia. Beginning on March 21, all cobia fishing north of the Florida/Georgia line will be managed solely by the states, acting through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Is that a good thing?
Right now, it’s hard to say.
NMFS provided a number of reasons why it was ceding control of the cobia fishery. The first on the list was
“The majority of Atlantic cobia are caught in state waters.”
That would seem to make ASMFC management a no-brainer.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, generally doesn’t apply in state waters, so it would make more sense to concentrate management responsibilities in an organization such as ASMFC, that may legally exert its authority over all of the catch. The Atlantic cobia fishery was recently thrown into some chaos precisely because federal managers couldn’t prevent overfishing in inshore waters, a situation which undoubtedly led to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and ultimately NMFS, wanting to wash their hands of that stock.
So it’s probably best to take a look at some of the unfortunate events that occurred over the past few years, before deciding whether abandoning cobia was the right thing for the South Atlantic Council to do.
The problems that plague cobia management can probably be traced back to 2012, when a benchmark cobia stock assessment was completed. That benchmark assessment included genetic sampling, which showed that there were actually two different stocks of cobia being caught on the Atlantic coast, with the fish off Florida being genetically different from those farther north. The Florida/Georgia line was set as a practical boundary between the two stocks.
Based on that finding, an annual catch limit was set for the Atlantic (Georgia to New York) stock.
For a few years, all was fine. But in 2015, anglers blew through their 630,000 pound Atlantic cobia catch limit, landing more than 1,500,000 pounds of fish. In 2016, the same thing happened, with anglers landing over 1,300,000 pounds of cobia, more than twice their 620,000 pound quota.
Anglers, who are allocated 92% of all cobia harvest, were seriously overfishing the stock, as the total annual catch limit in 2016, for both recreational and commercial fishermen, was only 670,000 pounds.
As a result of such overharvest, accountability measures kicked in. The federal waters season for 2017 only ran for a few weeks in January, from the 1st through the 23rd. After that, no recreational fisherman was allowed to keep an Atlantic cobia in federal waters until the start of 2018.
That sounds like a drastic measure, but it didn’t accomplish too much, because most of the landings, and most of the overage, was attrubutable to harvest within state waters. A large part of that harvest came from Virginia. North Carolina had substantial cobia catches too, but Georgia had very low landings, because most of its cobia were caught offshore. And in South Carolina, anglers couldn’t keep any cobia at all, because that state's laws require state landings to cease when the federal season is closed.
Thus, vesting management authority in federal hands didn’t work, because the states were ignoring the federal rules, and allowed their anglers to overfish. The resulting situation wasn’t only bad for the fish, it was bad for fishermen, too, because while anglers in Virginia and North Carolina took cobia home, those in Georgia and South Carolina were, as a practical matter, locked out of the fishery.
Shifting management authority to ASMFC seemed to be a better option, as ASMFC, unlike NMFS, had the power to enforce the terms of its management plan within state waters. Pursuant to the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, ASMFC could seek to shut down a state’s cobia fishery should such state refuse to abide by the cobia management plan.
ASMFC adopted its first cobia management plan in 2017. With respect to recreational fishermen, that plan provides that
“All states must establish a 1 fish bag limit, 38 inch [fork length] minimum size limits (or equivalent [total length] measurement, and a maximum vessel limit [not to exceed 6 fish] by April 1, 2018. A coastwide recreational harvest limit will be allocated to non-de minimis states as state-specific recreational harvest targets. States will establish season and vessel limits to restrict harvest to the harvest target, and adherence to harvest targets will be evaluated as average annual harvest over a 3-year timeframe. [emphasis added]”
The plan goes on to explain
“State-defined seasons must adhere to soft state-by-state recreational quota shares (harvest targets) of the coastwide [recreational harvest limit]. [emphasis added]”
Such shares are based on historical landings, with 39.8% of the landings (9,589 fish) going to Virginia, 38.5% (9,273 fish) to North Carolina, 12.2% (2.935 fish) to South Carolina, and 9.5% (2,298 fish) to Georgia.
The plan also provides that
“A state or jurisdiction will be determined out of compliance with the provision of this fishery management plan…if:
· Its regulatory and management programs to implement [the required management measures] have not been approved by the South Atlantic State-Federal Fisheries Management Board; or
· It fails to meet any schedule required by [the compliance schedule], or any addendum prepared under adaptive management…; or
· It has failed to implement a change to its program when determined necessary by the South Atlantic State-Federal Fisheries Management Board; or
· It makes a change to its regulations required under [the provisions of the plan] or any addendum prepared under adaptive management, without prior approval of the South Atlantic State-Federal Fisheries Management Board.”
It all sounds good. And just about anything is probably better than the former federal management system, that was unable to constrain the gross overharvest taking place in state waters.
But that doesn’t answer the one most important question.
Does it adequately protect the fish?
There’s a good chance that the answer to that question is “No.”
In explaining why all management authority was being handed over to ASMFC, NMFS explained that most of the landings take place in state waters. But NMFS also noted that
“NOAA Fisheries closed the 2016 and 2017 recreational fishing seasons because the current recreational accountability measure requires NOAA Fisheries to reduce the length of the fishing season in the year following an annual catch limit overage by the amount needed to prevent a similar overage from occurring.”
Sifting management responsibility from NMFS to ASMFC eliminated that issue, not because ASMFC will necessarily keep anglers from killing too many cobia in state waters—although hopefully, that will be the case—but because ASMFC doesn’t impose annual catch limits, and ASMFC doesn’t hold anglers accountable at all. That’s why the management plan refers to recreational harvest “targets” and “soft” state recreational quotas. The limits that ASMFC places on harvest are merely aspirational. They're goals that ASMFC would like to achieve, but if they’re not met, there will be no meaningful consequences (to the anglers) at all.
But that doesn’t mean that there might not be consequences affecting the health of the cobia stock.
Under the current management plan, anglers can badly overfish the cobia stock for three successive years, and the worst that will happen is that regulations will tighten for the next three-year period--although there’s no guarantee that they’ll tighten enough to prevent another three years of overharvest.
Now, the ASMFC cobia plan now has one year under its belt. How is it doing so far?
In all honesty, it’s tough to tell.
The plan was put together in 2017, about a year before NMFS came out with recalculated recreational catch and effort figures, which generally revealed higher recreational landings of all species—not just cobia—than was previously believed, and will also affect the estimates of stock size and acceptable harvest levels. Thus, the state quotas included in the plans will not be in synch with the landings reported on the NMFS website (although managers can convert the figures into a sort of “common currency” that harmonizes the two data sets). The two sets of data won’t be reconciled until a new benchmark cobia stock assessment is released later this year, and ASMFC has a chance to modify the cobia management plan in response.
But we can compare the relative size of states’ 2018 cobia landings with the landings in previous years, and at least figure out whether things are headed in the right direction.
When the landings of the four major cobia states—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia—are put together, a pattern begins to emerge.
Approximately 52,000 cobia were landed in 2014, when overfishing did not occur. That number more than doubled to 108,000 fish in 2015, resulting in overfishing, then dropped to a still-excessive 75,000 in 2016, before falling to 40,000 in 2017, the last year without an ASMFC management plan.
After ASMFC's plan went into effect in 2018, landings more than doubled, to nearly 100,000 fish, the second-highest landings in the five-year time series. That strongly suggests that significant overfishing again occurred.
Under the ASMFC plan, landings can continue at similar levels for two more years.
So it seems that Atlantic cobia are in a damned under ASMFC's management, and damned under federal management, too.
Federal managers had annual catch limits, and could hold anglers accountable for their overages, but couldn’t effectively manage the stock because they couldn’t wield those tools to restrict landings in state waters.
ASMFC has the authority to control state-waters landings but, with ASMFC lacking the hard-poundage catch limits needed to constrain the catch and the will to hold anglers accountable for overfishing, such authority is, in many ways, just a paper tiger.
The sad truth is, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council missed a real opportunity to improve cobia management, by ignoring the opportunity to jointly manage the fishery with ASMFC. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council provides an example of how well that sort of joint management can work.
When managing a number of popular recreational species, including summer flounder, black sea bass, bluefish and scup, the Mid-Atlantic Council meets jointly with the relevant ASMFC management board, where the two management bodies agree on annual harvest limits, along with model recreational bag limits, size limits and seasons for each managed stock. The Council and ASMFC have agreed that both bodies must approve proposed measures; if a measure is approved by one of the parties and not by the other, it is deemed to be void and adopted by neither.
Once both the Council and the management board agree on management measures, ASMFC takes over, assigning state quotas, and considering alternative state proposals that would have the same conservation benefits as the measures adopted at the joint meeting.
Such an arrangement would have served cobia well. NMFS, through the South Atlantic Council, would have been able to set firm annual catch limits, and would have been able to hold anglers accountable if they overfished. ASMFC, in turn, would have the authority to enforce the catch limits within state waters by setting state allocations, and then requiring states to set regulations that would keep recreational landings within each state's respective allocation.
That would have created a situation where everyone—including the cobia—had a chance to win.
Unfortunately, with NMFS’ recent announcement, that chance has been lost.
The Atlantic cobia's chance to avoid years of overfishing may have been lost as well.
Sunday, February 24, 2019
We all came to the coast in different ways.
Some of us were born to fishing families, either sport or commercial, and learned the ways of salt water from the same sort of immersive experiences that taught us to speak, to walk and to run.
Others came to the ocean later in life, when learning was a little harder. Some stumbled through their first few years on the coast, learning on their own. Others were tutored by friends. But it’s a pretty good chance that, for many, their first experience with salt water sport fishing was helped along by a guide—and by “guide,” I mean anyone in the business of taking folks fishing, whether in the surf, in the back bays, or on bigger waters aboard larger charter or party boats.
Beginnings are always fraught times, and just as some of us had our attitudes about fish and fishing shaped, in part, by family and friends, others have had theirs shaped by those early expperiences with professional guides. And thus, what guides think about fish, about fishing, and about fisheries issues has an impact that extends far beyond just themselves.
It’s something that I’ve thought about before, but I was reminded about it again, not long ago, when I was reading a series on the MeatEater website.
If you’re not familiar with MeatEater, it’s a website (and a TV show) that’s mostly dedicated to hunting, but touches on angling, too. But instead of the emphasis on trophies, “bro bonding,” equipment and such that is probably too prevalent in today’s outdoor media, MeatEater takes a more thoughtful look at hunting and fishing in the context of heritage, food, and conservation.
MeatEater recently published a five-part series written by guide April Vokey, titled “So You Want to Be a Fishing Guide?” In the final part of that series, Ms. Vokey provided her thoughts on a guide’s “Responsibility to the Resource,” and what she wrote made a lot of sense.
“Choosing a resource-based vocation has drawbacks. A guide’s security relies on the presumption that rivers and the fish within them will be healthy enough to withstand an open fishing season. Mother Nature isn’t for hire and she doesn’t care about a guide’s financial comfort…
“An ecological catastrophe, whether human-caused or naturally occurring, or a shift in regulation has the potential to bankrupt businesses that depend on fishery health and angler cooperation. Such uncertainties intensify the significance of a guide’s relationship with the resource. While its almost impossible to predict most acute events that can depress or destroy a fishery, a guide can control much of their own impact by staying informed on policy and current threats.”
Those are insightful statements, which are just as applicable to our ocean, striped bass and bluefish as they are to Ms. Vokey’s rivers, steelhead and salmon. Yet it’s strange how many salt water guides have not gained the insight that Ms. Vokey provides.
It seems impossible to deny that running a successful fishing business requires fish, yet in salt water, such guides still refuse to accept that reality. Despite the fact that winter flounder are at risk of complete extirpation in some waters of the State of New York, for example, and have already fallen to such low abundance levels that inbreeding is occurring, there are guides who are still trying to relax the state’s flounder regulations.
Such a “harvest at any cost” approach to fisheries can infect the thinking of the guides’ customers, and make them unthinking abettors to efforts that could harm fish stocks, when they should be trying to preserve populations of the fish that they seek to catch.
As Ms. Vokey wrote,
“Guide Hilary Hutcheson takes it one step further. ‘I get to show my guests how to be the eyes, ears, and voices that are so important in helping create policy that protects the resource.’
“…A forward-thinking guide sees guests as potential teammates—future investors in the fishery…
“Thoughtful and skilled guides can help these folks realize the fragility of fisheries that bring them a day, or even a lifetime, of pleasure. In turn, those clients might carry that message to their own sphere of influence.”
That’s a more sensible outlook. By teaching clients to value, respect and protect fishery resources, a guide is, in the end, only protecting his or her business interests in the long run.
By whipping up business with language like “sea bass beat down” and a “SLAUGHTER FEST” of blues and striped bass, salt water guides might well draw a boatload of customers seeking “a full boat limit” and “more than enough meat,” but they also give customers unrealistic expectations, that can’t be fulfilled when fish populations decline.
We’re staring one of those declines in the face right now.
The 2018 benchmark striped bass stock assessment has revealed that striped bass are both overfished and subject to continued overfishing. It’s clear that action must be taken to rebuild the stock; if no such action is taken, the stock could decline even more.
So the question is, will the guides seek to protect the resource, or will the “slaughter fest” mentality prevail?
When the issue arose in 2015, after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission called for a 25% reduction in fishing mortality, a lot of the guides spoke out for slaughter. As noted in the New York Marine Resources Advisory Council Bulletin for January 2015,
“Mr. Gilmore [the chief marine fisheries manager for the State of New York] said that ASMFC had decided that a 1-fish possession limit and a 28” minimum size (“1 at 28”) would be the standard coastwide. However, because conservation equivalency is allowed to be considered, after the meeting several states wanted to adopt different measures, specifically for the for-hire sector. They wanted 2 at 32 for that sector. This started a snowball for different measures…”
In the end, thanks to Mr. Gilmore and some of his counterparts up in New England, the 1 at 28” minimum remained the standard, for everyone, throughout the northeast, and for most of the Mid-Atlantic.
Now, as the debate over striped bass conservation begins anew, it’s impossible not to wonder where the guides will come out. Will most recognize the need to protect the resource? Or will they prefer “beat downs” and “slaughter fests” in the short term, in exchange for an uncertain future?
If this were a fresh water fishery, not just for steelhead or salmon, but for bass, muskellunge or perhaps even catfish, there’s little doubt that, as far as the guides were concerned, conservation would prevail. But in salt water, where guides have traditionally hung dead fish from hooks to show off their skills and lure in new clients, there is no such certainty.
History gives lots of reason to worry, but there are also reasons for hope. Here on the striper coast, there are guides speaking out for the fish.
Just this morning, I read a blog written by a surf guide named Bernie Hoyt, who guides and lives here on Long Island, but also takes anglers surfcasting throughout much of southern New England. He understands the problem, and wrote
“So given that there are many people—including me—who make a living out of this business, and have customers who want to keep their fish, what should we do?
“…I think changes have to come not only from legislation, but also from individual behaviors. No matter what laws are in place, ultimately when you bring in the fish, it is your decision to legally keep the fish or release it. In that moment, you are the regulatory authority. Each angler has the power to not only release a breeding fish but to also educate fellow anglers to refine the practice of catch and release. Releasing the large breeders helps to sustain the fishery. It’s ok to keep a fish to eat but let’s focus on releasing the large fish to preserve the future of this beautiful species.
“I think the challenge has to go out to the guides, captains, and local tackle shops to assist in the education of anglers as to the importance of catch and release and its relevance to our sport in general and the striped bass in particular… [emphasis added]”
That’s not a very different way of saying what Ms. Vokey wrote, when she said that “Thoughtful and skilled guides can help these folks realize the fragility of fisheries,” and lead them to become advocates for conservation.
Other striped bass guides are saying similar things. Perhaps foremost among them is my friend John McMurray, of One More Cast Charters, who wrote
“Take it from somebody who just spent 9 years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and a little over two years as a proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It is the we-need-to-kill-more folks on the recreational side…who tend to dominate the discussion…
“Managers are left with the perception that anglers just want to kill more. Same could be said for both state and national legislators. Because generally, that’s who they hear from. And that sucks. Because it’s NOT who or what the larger angling community is, and it certainly isn’t what we [light-tackle guides] stand for.
“This kind of stuff has to stop. Guides need to organize, and we need to start speaking up. Letting managers and politicians know that we are here, and that we count. That conservation is important not only to us, but to our clients and to most of the angling community.”
Capt. McMurray uses different words than did Ms. Vokey, but they agree on the basic message. Through my friendship with Capt. McMurray, I’ve met many other guides feel the same way.
Such sentiments aren’t the sole province of the light-tackle crowd. When I first started fishing offshore, back in the late 1970s, I was lucky enough to charter a captain out of Pt. Judith, Rhode Island who taught me the basics of fishing for sharks and tuna, while paying attention to the needs of the resource, too.
In recent years, I’ve also developed a friendship with a Montauk charter captain, who runs a traditional “six-pack” boat. He frequently talks about the need for “product,” how he describes an abundance of fish that his clients can catch, if his business is to survive.
Still, more guides need to understand that basic truth. As Ms. Vokey noted,
“Smart guides know that their paycheques depend on fish.”
Even the most conservation-averse should be able to realize that you can’t “beat down” or “slaughter” fish that aren’t there.
In his play The Tempest, William Shakespeare wrote
“Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
It is hard to imagine a sea-change richer or stranger, or more needed, than for salt water guides of all stripes—whether on the beach, on light-tackle skiffs, on six-packs or party boats—to realize that conservation is not a threat, and to finally understand that if they want to remain in business, conservation represents their only real shot at salvation.
Thursday, February 21, 2019
Sunday, February 17, 2019
“Female [spawning stock biomass] for Atlantic striped bass in 2017 was 68,476 [metric tons], below the SSB threshold, indicating the stock is overfished. [Fishing mortality] in 2017 was 0.307, above the F threshold, indicating the stock is experiencing overfishing. [internal references deleted]”
So we know that we’re facing a problem, and hopefully we’re going to fix it.
Of course, saying that you want to fix a problem is easy. Actually doing something that will make a material difference always proves to be quite a bit harder.
That’s certainly going to be the case with striped bass, because the hard numbers say that the remaining female spawning stock biomass is about 25% below the spawning stock biomass threshold, and about 40% below the rebuilding target, so any rebuilding plan is going to require some fairly severe cuts in harvest. And while people are always pretty eager to conserve someone else’s fish, and cut someone else’s landings, they can often be resistant to measures that end up cutting their own.
Hopefully, striped bass anglers won't follow that pattern.
On the whole, recreational bass fishermen are a relatively conservation-oriented bunch. That’s particularly true for surfcasters and the light-tackle crowd, who have learned the hard way that any reduction in striped bass numbers will affect the quality of their angling first.
Even so, as news of the striped bass’ trevails begin to appear in the angling press and on social media, we’re already beginning to see some anglers taking a “not my fault” stance, and pointing accusing fingers at the commercial sector.
“Make the changes to commercial and charter limits. My 1 or 2 every week or so can’t really be the issue… if it is… it’s already too late.”
And that poster is right—IF he’s only talking about the bass that he, himself takes home. But when you consider all of the anglers just like that poster, who each only take home a few fish each year, you get very large number. “1 or 2 fish every week,” for many thousands of anglers, killed over the course of a year, can quickly turn into hundreds of thousands of dead striped bass, weighing many millions of pounds.
And when you start talking about that sort of numbers, they can very quickly become an issue.
A big issue.
Even so, there are some who have long sought to place the onus of striped bass conservation on others’ shoulders.
“The only way to increase [striped bass] biomass is to manage them as a recreational species,”
By “as a recreational species,” Clark means “by eliminating the commercial fishery.” That’s long been a goal of
“The only silver lining in all of this is that we may be presented with a return of the opportunity that we missed in 1988 to designate striped bass as a game fish in the coastal states. Had that happened, we are confident that the decline we all have witnessed in the last 10 or 15 years would not have taken place.”
But it’s hard to figure out what that confidence Stripers Forever expresses is based on.
It certainly isn’t based on .
So when folks point their fingers at the commercial fishery, and say that it causes most of the harm, their claims seem to arise more out of wishful thinking than from anything out in the real world.
A lot of folks won’t want to believe that. They’ll talk about But while such incidents certainly occur, and result in disturbing photos that quickly spread across Internet fishing forums, they’re not the primary source of fishing mortality—or even discard mortality—of the striped bass.
Think of them as the mass shootings of the fishing world.
Instead, the vast majority of our murders take place by the ones and twos, in drug deals gone wrong, botched liquor store holdups and domestic disputes. .
In the same way, most striped bass mortality is generated a fish at a time, as anglers each take home a fish or two, and release many more, some of which, inevitably, die. While the big bycatch events might be photogenic, they are the exception, and not the rule.
And we can’t really blame the charter boats, either.
Again, there are times when we see the party and charter boats hitting the bass pretty hard, but they make up only a small part of the picture. Less than 240,000 of those fish—barely more than 10%--can be attributed to the for-hire sector..
So when we look at the striped bass’ problems, the first thing that we need to do is admit that we—the surf and private-boat recreational fishermen—are the primary source of fishing mortality, and thus will have to shoulder the primary burden of bringing back the striped bass stock.
That doesn’t mean that such burden shouldn't be shared; if, just for the sake of example, another 25% reduction in landings is needed to rebuild the stock, then the measures adopted should seek to reduce each of the private boat/surf, for-hire and commercial landings by at least that amount.
But because we account for so much of the landings, when it comes to absolute numbers, rather than percentages, most of the savings will, of necessity, come from us.
How those cuts will have to be made will always be an issue.
Striped bass mortality has not been symmetrical, and neither were the reductions that resulted from the last management action, .
Pursuant to such Addendum, coastal states were supposed to land 25% less in 2015, compared to 2013, while Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions were supposed to land 20.5% less than they had in 2012. The decision to establish different reductions for the Bay and the coast was well-intentioned, but like many good intentions, it paved the wrong road.
As a result, while coastal anglers harvested, or lost to release mortality, fewer than 390,000 striped bass last year, anglers in inland waters—which, with some tiny exceptions, means Chesapeake Bay—killed nearly 1.9 million, about 85% of all recreational landings. And while many of those fish were undoubtedly males, many were also females that were still too young to spawn.
In addition, biologists assume that about 9% of all bass released don’t survive the experience, but
“27% is the more appropriate figure given current fishing techniques and environmental conditions in Chesapeake Bay during the warmest months of the summer [up through and including 2017]”
The estimate of dead discards in the benchmark assessment could well have underestimated the actual fishing mortality attributable to Chesapeake Bay anglers.
Thus, reducing the fishing mortality attributable to Bay anglers—and making sure that they meet their mandated reductions this time, and don’t shirk them as they did in the wake of Addendum IV—is going to be a big part of any recovery plan. Most of the kill in the Bay consists of young fish that have just recruited into the population. Many fall below the Chesapeake jurisdictions’ low 19- and 20-inch size limits.
Killing too many of those little fish is arguably equivalent to killing the striper’s future.
But coastal anglers will have to do their part too, using circle hooks in bait (already required in the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay) and being more aware of good release practices. Prominent among those will be keeping bass in the water as much as possible, and not waving them around for photos while they’re desperately trying to breathe.
Think about someone holding your head underwater after you’ve finished a mile-long run, or completed a really tough workout, and you get an idea what bass experience in front of your camera’s lens.
And everywhere, we can expect size limits to increase, bag limits—in the few places where they allow more than one—to come down, and maybe even see a season, particularly in areas where warm summer waters are likely to reduce chances for released fish’s survival.
The bottom line is that, if we want to see the abundance of bass in the water increase, then the number of bass that go into coolers, and are otherwise killed, needs to come down.
As the primary cause of striped bass mortality, we, the surf and private-boat anglers, must take the lead in making that happen.