Sunday, April 28, 2019


And if you fish for striped bass at all seriously, you have probably wondered why it took the folks at the ASMFC so long to figure that out, since you’ve been watching the stock decline for a decade or more.

You probably know that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will be meeting next Tuesday, to discuss taking the first steps needed to end overfishing and rebuild the striped bass stock.  

You’ll note that I was very careful to say “discuss the first steps,” as opposed to “take the first steps,” because as I’ve described so many times before, ASMFC management boards don’t always do what they need to do to maintain healthy and sustainable fish stocks.

ASMFC's record with striped bass is far too uneven.  After scoring what may have been the biggest saltwater fisheries management win of the 20th Century—nursing the once-collapsed striped bass stock back to full health twenty-five years ago—the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board fell into a pattern of risk-tolerant behavior that slowly undercut its original success, and allowed the striped bass stock to fall back into decline.

Such behavior included the Management Board’s approval of a series of what were, individually, small-scale exemptions for state regulations that did not comply with the management provisions of the management plan.  While each individual exemption was relatively insignificant, collectively, they had the potential to adversely impact the stock.  As Rep. Dennis Abbot, New Hampshire’s Legislative Appointee to the Management Board once noted,

“To me what is going on is, as I would term it, is we’re dealing with striped bass management as becoming death by thousand cuts.  We keep adding little things to our management plan; we can do this in one place and we can do things in another place, and it really doesn’t affect overfishing.
“…we’re really going off the rails here.  When we adopted a coast-wide size limit of 28 inches and 18 inches for the producer areas, that is what we said but we keep weakening that.  I just think that it’s the wrong way to go because in a lot of circles people think that striped bass fishing is not as good as it was, and continuing as a management board to do these things is not going in the right direction.”
That was said in 2009, when anglers were just beginning to notice the striped bass decline.  Rep. Abbott’s words were, predictably, ignored.

“I think certainly some of the other symptoms of this fishery, if I had to put it in a simplistic way, red light, yellow light, green light, we have a green light fishery with getting ready to enter possibly a yellow light phase.  I think some caution is indicated, but on the other hand I think we have a sustainable fishery, and some of the factors that we may have management control in reality we do not.”
Such characterization of the fishery is difficult to explain.  At least when I was learning to drive, I was taught that green meant “go,” red meant “stop,” and yellow meant “exercise caution.” 

Receiving a stock assessment update that warned,

“For F=0.23 (current fishing mortality)…Abundance and exploitable biomass of ages 8+ are expected to decline regardless of the recruitment scenario.  Female [spawning stock biomass] will fall slightly below the threshold by 2017 under both recruitment scenarios.”
certainly should have had the yellow “caution light” shining bright, as it informed the Management Board that the striped bass stock would become overfished—female spawning stock biomass would fall below threshold—by 2017.  It wasn’t time for panic—2017 was still nearly five years away—because if fishing mortality was reduced far enough below the then-current rate of 0.23, the Management Board could still have avoided a problem.  And an addendum to reduce such mortality was already underway.

But the Management Board abandoned its effort.  Behaving as so many drivers do these days, instead of slowing down and stopping for the “yellow light” while they still had plenty of time, they instead maintained speed and blew through the signal, accepting the risk that the light might, in fact, turn red a little too soon.

must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year,”
must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [10 years].  [emphasis added]”
But when that “yellow light” popped up, the Management Board reacted by doing the equivalent of slowing down a bit, looking both ways, and then speeding up and blowing through the intersection, again taking the risk that it might get caught by the red.

In the end, the recreational fishery in the Chesapeake never achieved its required reduction.  It instead substantially increased its contribution to overall fishing mortality, and continues to do so today, removing primarily immature fish that, at least in the case of the females, never get a chance to contribute to the spawning stock.   However because recreational fishermen on the coast reduced their landings far more than 25%, the addendum reached its fishing mortality target.

“Management trigger 2 in Amendment 6 says that you need to rebuild the [spawning stock biomass] back to its target over a specified timeframe that should not exceed ten years…The board is acting to reduce [fishing mortality].  Through that action we see the projections showing that [spawning stock biomass] will start increasing towards its target, but we’re uncomfortable with projecting out far enough to tell you when it will reach its target because the further on the projections we go the more uncertainty that is involved.  Therefore, I think the trend to is to get back toward the target, but we can’t tell you exactly how quickly that will happen.”
It’s a remarkable statement, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, it makes it clear that the provisions of ASMFC management plans, no matter how carefully they’re written nor how long they’re debated, have no binding force.  A management board may, with complete impunity, ignore the explicit language of any such provision, as the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board ignored the provision that it “must” rebuild the stock within ten years.

Second, it makes one wonder why the increasing uncertainty that is in inescapable part of any 10-year rebuilding plan would disqualify such a rebuilding plan for striped bass at ASMFC, when federal fishery managers have been regularly able to craft the many successful 10-year rebuilding plans required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  The striped bass stock assessment is generally considered “data-rich,” which should make 10-year projections for bass somewhat less uncertain that those made for the many, and probably most, federally-managed species that have been, or still are, subject to rebuilding plans.  Perhaps when you’re legally required to adopt 10-year plans, you get better at drafting them.  Or perhaps if you aren’t legally required to recover fish stocks within a time certain, you grab onto any excuse to avoid the politically-unpopular restrictions that rebuilding plans often require, and leave the fish to recover however, and if, they can.

Finally, fishery managers will always face some level of uncertainty.  While the Management Board wasn’t willing to accept the uncertainty inherent in a 10-year rebuilding plan, it was more than willing to accept the uncertainty that, without a well-conceived rebuilding plan, the bass stock wouldn’t recover at all.

And, in fact, we know just what happened:  The Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, eschewing a formal rebuilding plan, sped up and blew through that last “yellow light."

But the light turned red, and because of that, the bass did not make it through in one piece.

The 2018 benchmark assessment found them both overfished and subject to overfishing.

As the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board approaches Tuesday’s meeting, it will be facing a very big, very bright “red light.”  It will also be facing management triggers similar to those that it faced in 2014, which require the Management Board to end overfishing in one year, and rebuild the stock in ten.

Will the Management Board see the red light this time, heed all of the signals, and proceed in accord with the management plan?

Or will it speed through the light, eyes again tightly shut, and cause the striped bass stock to crash?

Thursday, April 25, 2019


Last Monday, I was one of many folks involved in conservation issues who was invited to attend New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Earth Day program here on Long Island.

The program wasn’t built around fish or marine resources, although the Governor did mention a bill that he had signed, which effectively outlawed purse seining for menhaden, and addressed some water quality issues.  

The high point occurred when the Governor signed new legislation that outlawed the use of plastic shopping bags throughout the state, something that might not have an immediate impact on the health of fish stocks, but will make our bays and shorelines a somewhat cleaner place.

But what I’m writing about today isn’t what the Governor did, or the bill that he signed, but rather what that he said as he described the long fight to get the bag bill through the state Legislature.

“Change is hard.”
Because change is hard when you deal with fisheries issues, too.

Fishermen are, by and large, a conservative bunch.  Not necessarily “conservative” in a political sense, although that, too, may be true, but in the sense of being very resistant to change.  They generally look to the past, and expect it to dictate the future, rather than looking to the future, and understanding that the past is forever gone. 

Suggestions that a quota, a regulation or, particularly, a business needs to change and conform to today’s reality are viewed as anathema, and vigorously and often angrily resisted; listening to them speak, it’s often clear that fishermen expect reality to be warped to conform to their needs and desires.

Because they have no plans to change.

But many fishermen, from all over the coast, oppose reallocation.  While many acknowledge that the flounder have moved, they still oppose reallocation, saying things such as

“New Jersey and other states earned their allocation [during the 1980s] and should maintain it,”
“There was a lot of work that went into getting an agreement on the initial allocation and that should be honored by not changing it,”

“North Carolina fishermen are the hardest workers on the east coast and their work helped establish the quota not only for North Carolina, but other states along the coast; given this, the allocations should remain as they are.”
In other words, we don’t want their world to change.  

Because, as Governor Cuomo said,

 “Change is hard.”
When the Governor said that, he also observed that

“We know the truth,”
about many environmental or conservation issues, and recognize that things have to change, but too often stand by and do nothing, because, of course,

“Change is hard.”
When I heard him say that, I couldn’t help thinking of the many, many fisheries meetings that I have attended, where members of both the commercial and recreational fishing industry argued vehemently argued that “there are plenty of fish out there,” in an effort to contradict peer-reviewed stock assessments that convincingly found that was not so.

I have to believe that most of those fishing industry folks knew, in their hearts, that the stock assessments are true.  When you’re out on the water every day, you’re quick to notice when fish become scarce.  You notice when you have to travel farther every day, and still catch fewer fish than you used to catch right outside the inlet; you notice when the fish that you catch start getting smaller; you notice when once-productive spots go cold, and all of the fish that you catch come from just a few places, and only at certain times.

But you don’t want to admit it, because if you do that, you leave yourself open to accepting changes; changes in regulations, changes in income, changes in how, and even if, your business can operate.  So you go to the meetings and yell “Status quo!,” and even though cod populations have been in a nosedive for a few decades now, you announce that

“The fishermen vehemently dispute this latest assessment.  We have had problems with the cod stock assessment going on 20 years now,”
because the assessments confirm what you already know.  And that means that things have to change.  But, since

“Change is hard,”
instead of supporting meaningful action, you deny the truth for as long as you can, and hope any change somehow passes you by.

But in the end, you can’t escape reality.  You can accept it and plan for the change, or you can deny it and claim outraged surprise when it comes up behind you and bites.

Too many folks involved in fisheries matters tend to elect the latter option, when they should, to steal Governor Cuomo’s language for one last time (because yes, he does have a way with words),

“Expose the problem, then lead the way on its solution.”
That, the Governor said, is what New York seeks to do on environmental issues, and it’s what we all ought to do when we address fisheries matters, too.

Because yes, change is hard, but it’s also inevitable.  Planning for change ultimately brings far more success than futilely clinging to a past that’s dead and gone, and will never return.

That means accepting the fact that, with coastal populations expanding and ever-greater stresses being placed on marine resources, fishing—whether commercial or recreational—is always going to be regulated.  And realizing that, as more anglers enter our remaining fisheries, those regulations are probably always going to be about as tough as they are now.

We’re never going to see a 14” fluke limit again.

So it’s time to stop lamenting about what summer flounder fishing was like twenty years ago, and start worrying about what it will be like twenty years from now, when a whole new generation of anglers, many not yet even born, will be on the water.  

As Governor Cuomo noted a few days ago (I know I said I’d stop stealing his language, but since he stole this one from somebody else…)

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
Those children have a right to enjoy a vibrant and sustainable fishery in their future, long after we, who enjoyed the past, are dead and gone.

If they are to receive their rightful share of the resource, to steward and pass on in their turn, there will have to be change. 

Fisheries will have to be managed for sustainable abundance, and not short-term yield. 

That’s particularly true in recreational fisheries, where managers must shift their emphasis from maximizing dead fish on the docki to maximizing live fish in the water. 

Managers need to change their understanding of recreational fisheries, recognize that the angling experience, for most, is about far more than dead fish, and accept the fact that fish left in the water to be caught, released, and then caught again are being as fully utilized as those that are caught once and killed.

Having said that, there are some anglers who fish mostly for food.  Even so, old business paradigms, born when there were more abundant fish and far fewer anglers, are already proving hard to sustain.  

The days of heavy coolers and light regulation belong to the past.  If angling-related businesses intend to still be around ten or twenty years from now, this is the time to create new business plans that are built not around expanding customer’s kill, but on expanding the customer base, and providing experiences that more people—not just hard-core anglers—will want to enjoy.

That’s a tough sell to old salts, who have been conditioned to define success by the number of fish they put on the dock.  But if there’s one truth in business, it’s that you either change with the times or you fail.

Even if change is hard.

Commercial fisheries are governed by the same rule.  The days of filling the hold with cod, or summer flounder, or sea bass, are forever gone.  It’s a time of real change.

I just received word today that, as of May 1, trip limits for New York’s commercial fishermen will fall to just 70 pounds of summer flounder and 50 pounds of black sea bass.  Those are very small limits, yet both species may still be legally caught in trawls, which often entrap far greater quantities of fish in a single tow.  Since the discard mortality rate of summer flounder caught in trawls is very high—close to 60% on short tows, and over 75% on longer ones—most of the excess fish caught are killed and wasted.

From a resource perspective, and from an ethical perspective, too, that waste is wrong, and calls out for change.  Whether that change comes in the form of restrictions on gear, larger trip limits and shorter seasons, or perhaps the sort of catch share program that has worked well in other fisheries remains to be seen. But whatever form it eventually takes, one thing is sure—fishermen will be adamantly against it.

Because change is hard, even when it’s needed, and makes perfect sense.

When he spoke on Long Island last Monday, Governor Cuomo didn’t say much about fish.

At least in one respect.

But in another, when he acknowledged that change was hard, but also recognized that the only way to move forward, on any issue, was to expose the problem, and then lead the way to a solution—to, in fact, be an agent of change—he said everything that really matters.

Sunday, April 21, 2019


The actions that the Management Board decide to take at that meeting will likely determine the health of the striped bass stock, as well as the health of the striped bass fishery, for many years into the future.

If the Management Board acts responsibly, and moves quickly to end overfishing and rebuild the bass stock, we should see both the stock and the fishery recover fairly soon.  However, if the Management Board dawdles, adopts ill-advised half-measures, or chooses to change the reference points that define a healthy stock and a sustainable fishing rate, we could be looking at further declines and perhaps even the sort of fishing that some of us remember—and try to forget—from back in the 1980s.

That’s a good sign.

But the big question is what, exactly, ASMFC ought to do.

ASMFC’s policy on such matters is clear.  It’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter states that

“It is the policy of the Commission that its [Interstate Fisheries Management Program] promote the conservation of Atlantic coastal fishery resources, be based on the best scientific information available, and provide adequate opportunity for public participation.  [emphasis added]”
The Charter also states that

“Above all, [a fishery management plan] must include conservation and management measures that ensure the long-term biological health and productivity of fishery resources under management.”
To better achieve that objective, the Charter includes standards for its management plans, including one that that reads

“Conservation programs and management measures shall be designed to prevent overfishing and maintain over time, abundant, self-sustaining stocks of coastal fishery resources.  In cases where stocks have become depleted as a result of overfishing and/or other causes, such programs shall be designed to rebuild, restore, and subsequently maintain such stocks so as to assure their sustained availability in fishable abundance on a long-term basis.  [emphasis added]”

“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded in any year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.”
It also requires that

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2.”
Section 2.6.2 allows the Management Board to set any rebuilding timeframe that it deems appropriate, so long as that timeframe does not exceed ten years.

The new benchmark stock assessment has found that the striped bass stock is both overfished and subject to overfishing.  Thus, according to the policy and standards set forth in the Charter, along with the language of the fishery management plan, the Management Board’s course seems clear.

The problem is that, in the past, ASMFC has failed to live up to its own conservation policy and standards.  And when the previous benchmark assessment came out in 2013, and found that fishing mortality was regularly exceeding the target, and that the female spawning stock biomass had fallen below its target and remained there for a few years, the Management Board ignored another directive included in Amendment 6, which states that

“If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2.”
This time, as the letter mentioned earlier suggests, it seems that state fishery managers are serious about fixing the striped bass’ problems.  But we can never forget that states only get one vote on any management matter, and that a state fishery manager’s professional advice can be overruled by the other two members of a state delegation, who are generally political appointees with little or no background in fisheries science.  Thus, despite positive signs, it’s not a given that the Management Board will do the right thing.

And, if they do take action, there is bound to be a lot of discussion about what that “right thing” will be.

Hopefully, most will agree on the basics, which are nothing more than the requirements set out by Amendment 6:  Reduce fishing mortality to the target level within one year, and rebuild the stock within ten.

Neither of those things should be too hard to do.  Ending overfishing is merely a matter of reducing landings, establishing commercial quotas, and recreational size limits, bag limits and very possibly seasons, calculated to return fishing mortality to the target level.  And given that Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass managed to restore a collapsed stock within ten years, it would be hard to argue that a new addendum couldn’t restore the current stock to health, given that bass are still in far better shape today than they were in 1985.

What will be hard will be convincing all of the governors’ appointees and legislative appointees and/or their proxies that rebuilding and conserving the striped bass stock will be worth the short-term economic inconvenience that such actions will inevitably entail—and, more to the point, will be worth all of the political pressure that will be directed at them from folks who feel that their income is directly related to the number of dead bass that folks put on the dock.

But assuming that the Management Board gets over that initial hump, and moves on to considering specific management measures, here are some measures that ought to be considered.

The size limit, both on the coast and in Chesapeake Bay, needs to go up if we’re to end overfishing and rebuild the stock.  We won’t know how much it needs to increase until the Technical Committee; makes their calculations, and throwing a number out prior to that is just taking a shot in the dark.  But some sort of increase is inevitable.

If the Management Board wanted to hedge its bets and take a more risk-averse approach, it could borrow a strategy from Amendment 3, and establish size limits in Chesapeake Bay, and eventually on the coast, that increase each year in order to shield the strong 2015 year class from significant fishing mortality until the spawning stock is rebuilt.  Even with such a limit in place, survivors of the big 2011 year class would provide anglers with some fish to harvest during the rebuilding process.

The coastal bag limit will, of necessity, remain unchanged, as one fish is already as low as it can go; however, managers should ask whether it would make sense to reduce Chesapeake Bay’s two-fish bag to one fish as well.  As for seasons, the Management Board ought to seriously consider complete closures—yes, catch and release would be outlawed, too--at times and in places where water temperature, salinity or other physical conditions typically result in high levels of discard mortality. 

To further reduce the number of fish that don’t survive release, circle hooks should be required in all bait fisheries likely to encounter striped bass.

To maximize the impact of such regulations, they should be required for all coastal states, with complimentary, but also consistent, rules adopted for Chesapeake Bay.   Currently, ASMFC’s striped bass management plan embraces the concept of “conservation equivalency,” and allows states to adopt regulations different from those established by the plan, so long as such regulations provide the same benefit to the fish being managed.  Yet such equivalency is too often theoretical; there has been little or no follow-up to assure that “equivalent” regulations actually meet their conservation goals.  

“Management measures need to be measurable and achievable.  Too often we do things that look good on paper but don’t meet the necessary conservation requirements.”
That’s a particular problem with overfished stocks such as striped bass.  ASMFC’s Conservation Equivalency:  Policy and Technical Guidance Document notes that

“During the development of a management document, the Plan Development Team (PDT) should recommend if conservation equivalency should be permitted for that species.  The board should provide a specific determination if conservation equivalency is an approved option for the fishery management plan, since conservation equivalency may not be appropriate or necessary for all management programs.  The PDT should consider stock status, stock structure, data availability, range of the species, socio-economic information, and the potential for more conservative management when stocks are overfished or overfishing is occurring when making a recommendation on conservation equivalency.  [emphasis added]”
Keeping every state on the same regulatory page would allow data to be collected and analyzed on a coastwide basis, leading to more accurate harvest estimates and a better understanding of the efficacy of whatever regulations are ultimately adopted.

If conservation equivalency is permitted at all, it should be conditioned upon states being held accountable for their “equivalent” regulations.  If they do not meet the mandated harvest reductions, whether expressed as a percentage, in fish or in pounds, they should be required to pay back such overage in the following year.  States adopting such equivalent regulations might argue that state-level landings estimates are not sufficiently accurate to be used in such a manner, but if such estimates are deemed to be accurate enough to be used to calculate conservation equivalent measures, than there is little reason why they shouldn’t be deemed accurate enough to be used to calculate accountability measures, too.

For states that stick with the management measures specified in the management plan, and don’t seek conservation equivalency, accountability measures should be imposed on a “fleet-wide” basis.  That is, an individual state, which adopted the coastwide management measures approved by ASMFC, would not be held accountable if such state failed to meet the mandated harvest reduction in any given year.  However, if the entire coast, or all of Chesapeake Bay, failed to achieve the required reduction, regulations would have to be tightened to better assure success in the following year.

Such a provision would help to avoid a repeat of the situation that occurred after the adoption of Addendum IV, when anglers in Chesapeake Bay, who were supposed to reduce their landings by 20.5% (compared to landings in 2012), actually increased their landings substantially, continue to harvest fish at much higher levels that the addendum contemplated, and have not been held accountable at all.

It should be noted that such accountability measures would not be completely foreign to the ASMFC, nor to its striped bass management program, although they would represent a new approach to recreational striped bass management.  Accountability has long been imposed on the commercial striped bass fishery, where states are required to pay back any overages in the following year.

Also, given that the striped bass stock is overfished and subject to overfishing, it makes little sense to transfer quota between the recreational and commercial sectors in order to increase a state’s landings.  For example, in New Jersey, which has eliminated its commercial fishery, anglers are allowed to keep a third striped bass, at least 24 but less than 28 inches long, after September 1, in addition to the state’s two-fish “conservation equivalent” bag limit.  That third fish comes out of New Jersey’s unused commercial quota, and allows Garden State anglers to  harvest immature female striped bass throughout the fall run—hardly the best situation when managers are trying to rebuild the stock.

Finally, the Management Board should seriously consider whether management measures that have only a 50% chance of success—and an equal likelihood of failure—are appropriate when trying to end overfishing and rebuild the overfished striped bass stock.  Regulations that have a higher chance of success will pinch a bit more in the short term, but are more likely to avoid even greater pain later on.

A 50% chance of failure is just too high.

It’s unlikely that many fishery managers would risk all of their personal assets in a business venture that has a 50-50 chance of going bankrupt.  They shouldn’t be willing to accept more risk on a management venture that has a 50-50 chance of squandering a public resource.

The striped bass is arguably the most important recreational fishery on the East Coast.  It is an important, and very valuable asset.

We can only hope that fishery managers treat that public asset with as much care as they would treat an asset of their own.

Thursday, April 18, 2019


No man can serve two masters: for either he
will hate the one, and love the other, or else
he will hold to the one, and despise the other.
Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.

                                              Matthew 6:24

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has been maddeningly ineffective when it comes to rebuilding fish stocks and maintaining such stocks at sustainable levels.
While federal fishery managers, guided by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), have already rebuilt at least 45 once-overfished stocks, ASMFC has only rebuilt a single stock, Atlantic striped bass, since it was created in 1942. A recent stock assessment has revealed that even striped bass are once again overfished and subject to continued overfishing.

ASMFC manages 27 different species (or, in some cases such as coastal sharks, species complexes) of fish and crustaceans, which can be further broken down into 33 separate fish stocks. Nine of those species, and ten of the stocks, are also federally-managed, and so benefit from the conservation and management measures required by Magnuson-Stevens. Of the other 23 stocks, only five, or 22%, are completely healthy, neither overfished nor subject to overfishing. On the other hand, at least eleven of those stocks, nearly half of all stocks managed solely by ASMFC, are currently overfished.

It’s hard not to wonder why federal fishery managers have been so successful in rebuilding and maintaining fish stocks, while ASMFC has had such dismal results. ASMFC has a dedicated staff of fishery professionals, both at its administrative and at its staff levels. The scientific advice that such staff provides is equal to that provided to the federal fishery management councils, and every ASMFC stock assessment goes through the same rigorous peer review as do the assessments of federally-managed species, a process overseen by the Northeast and/or South Atlantic fishery science centers.

In the end, it all comes down to priorities.
Federal fishery managers’ priorities are clear. Magnuson-Stevens includes ten “national standards for fishery management and conservation.” The first of those states that “Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.” National Standard 1, when read in conjunction with other provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, makes it clear that conserving fish stocks shall be the first priority of federal fisheries managers.
If there was any doubts about that, or any thoughts about buffering such conservation concerns to address economic considerations, they were dispelled by the federal appellate court’s decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley. It stated that “under [Magnuson-Stevens], the [National Marine Fisheries] Service must give priority to conservation measures. It is only when two different plans achieve similar conservation measures that the Service takes into consideration adverse economic consequences. That is confirmed by both the statute’s plain language and the regulations issued pursuant to the statute.”

Thus, National Standard 8 can require that any conservation and management measures adopted “take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities,” and “minimize…adverse economic impacts on such communities,” but only to the extent that can be done “consistent with the conservation requirements” of Magnuson-Stevens.
When economic and conservation considerations conflict, conservation must always come first.
That’s just not how it works at ASMFC, where the Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter (ASMFC Charter) creates a web of contradictory management standards, that make it practically impossible to effectively conserve and manage fish stocks.

That charter begins by stating, “It is the policy of the Commission that its [Interstate Fisheries Management Program] promote the conservation of Atlantic coastal fishery resources, be based on the best scientific information available, and provide adequate opportunity for public participation.” It later establishes standards for all of the ASMFC’s fishery management plans (FMPs), and in doing so provides that “Above all, an FMP must include conservation and management measures that ensure the long-term biological health and productivity of fishery resources under management. [emphasis added]”

The ASMFC’s FMP standards even contain a very Magnuson-Stevens-like requirement that “Conservation programs and management measures shall be designed to prevent overfishing and maintain over time, abundant, self-sustaining stocks of coastal fishery resources. In cases where stocks have become depleted as a result of overfishing and/or other causes, such programs shall be designed to rebuild, restore and subsequently maintain such stocks so as to assure their sustained availability in fishable abundance on a long-term basis.”
Based on such language, it would appear that the ASMFC, like federal fishery managers, lends conservation their highest priority. But that doesn’t turn out to be true.
Despite the standard that clearly states that “management measures shall be designed to prevent overfishing,” the ASMFC adopted Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Tautog in 2017, which has only a 50-50 chance of ending overfishing on the Long Island Sound population by 2029, and does nothing to prevent overfishing before then. And despite that standard’s clear requirement to “maintain…abundant, self-sustaining stocks” of coastal fish, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board failed to take action to prevent that stock from becoming overfished, even though scientists had given clear warning that the spawning stock biomass was in decline.

That’s probably because the ASMFC Charter does not clearly set out just what an FMP must do.
The same paragraph that requires an FMP to “include conservation and management measures that ensure the long-term biological health” of fish stocks also states that “Social and economic impacts and benefits must be taken into account” and, in what may be the ASMFC Charter’s most confounding statement, declares that “an effective fishery management program must be carefully designed in order to fully reflect the varying values and other considerations that are important to the various interest groups involved in coastal fisheries.”
Thus, in a single FMP, the ASMFC is expected to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, and account for social and economic impacts, while at the same time fully reflecting the values of interest groups ranging from the conservation community to industrial fishing fleets and everyone else in-between. Resolving such conflicting considerations is an impossible task, which is made even more difficult by the fact that the courts, which act as a final arbiter of federal fishery conflicts, have no authority to review ASMFC FMPs pursuant to the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

The ASMFC has perpetuated that no-win situation in “Goal 1” of its new Five-Year Strategic Plan (Strategic Plan), which states that “Commission members will advocate decisions to achieve the long-term benefits of conservation, while balancing the socio-economic interests and needs of coastal communities.” By seeking an illusory “balance” between conservation and socio-economic concerns, rather than prioritizing the needs of fishery resources, the Strategic Plan will help ensure that ASMFC will continue to produce weak, ineffective FMPs that fail to rebuild overfished stocks, and place even the few currently healthy stocks at risk of following the striped bass into decline.

A recent study has demonstrated that such FMPs, which take an incremental approach to harvest reductions in an attempt to minimize socio-economic impacts, create a culture of overfishing that helps assure the FMP’s failure, while FMPs that decisively act to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks tend to spawn cultures of conservation that lead to healthy, sustainable fisheries.

Viewed in that light, the ASMFC’s management failures are not only understandable, but predictable.
The federal fishery management system fell victim to the same sort of conflicts between conservation and socio-economic concerns, and engaged in the same sort of ineffective management, after Magnuson-Stevens first became law. That didn’t change until Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 (SFA), which compelled federal fisheries managers to make conservation their top priority.

That experience suggests that the only way to transform the ASMFC into an effective fishery management body is to pass what would amount to a new SFA, which would require the ASMFC to adhere to the same legal mandates to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks that now apply only to federal fishery managers.
By doing so, Congress would make the ASMFC’s mission clear, and allow it to focus its talent and energy on conserving and rebuilding Atlantic fish stock, and free it from the impossible task that it faces today, for the ASMFC cannot expect to effectively manage fish stocks so long as it tries to serve both the conservation needs of fish stocks and the socio-economic interests of various stakeholder groups.
The fish must come first, for it’s impossible to have a fishing industry, or any socio-economic benefits, without them.
This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Sunday, April 14, 2019


It addressed the recent benchmark stock assessment’s finding that 48% of all striped bass fishing mortality is the result of fish that died after being released by recreational fishermen, briefly discussed the origins of such figure, and then went into the factors that cause such release mortality.

It was an interesting piece, and I recommend that anyone with a concern for such things click on the above link and read it.

We ought to be thinking a lot about release mortality, because there is no question that the 48% number is going to play a big part in the upcoming striped bass debate.  Should a higher minimum size for bass be proposed—and it’s hard to imagine being able to rebuild the stock if that isn’t done—one of the arguments we’re sure to hear is that a bigger minimum size will lead to more release mortality, and thus that the limit should be left where it is.

Such argument sounds good on its face, but initial impressions are often deceiving.

Maybe, before taking a stand, we should be asking “Is increasing release mortality always a bad thing?”

Yes, I know, that sounds like heresy.  But it might be best to think about some basic biology here.  The health of a fish population—of any animal population—isn’t dependent upon what happens to creatures after they die.

What matters is keeping the numbers that die—from all causes, and for any reason—within sustainable bounds.

So yes, as responsible and ethical anglers, we should be doing our best to minimize release mortality by using tackle and techniques that prevent harming and exhausting the fish, by releasing fish quickly and, preferably, without taking them out of the water, and by otherwise avoiding any preventable injury to released fish.  When we do keep a bass, we ought to make sure that fish isn’t wasted.

But all of those things, while hallmarks of responsible angling, are only means to an end, and that end is reducing overall striped bass mortality.

Because it’s overall striped bass mortality—what the scientific folks refer to as “Z”--that matters, because if the recruitment of new fish into the population isn’t sufficient to make up for the fish lost to mortality of every kind, the striped bass population, and the quality of striped bass angling, can only decline.

Such overall mortality is a combination of natural mortality (“M”), which is pretty much out of our control, and fishing mortality (“F”), which can be managed.  So in the real world, where Z always equals M + F, and fishing mortality is the only thing that managers can regulate, overall mortality is kept within sustainable limits by limiting fishermen’s kill.

You’ll note that I wrote “fishermen’s kill” rather than “fishermen’s landings”, because a dead fish is a dead fish, and has the same impact on the population, whether or not it makes it back to the dock.  And that’s why we might want to start reconsidering our attitude toward release mortality.

Because, yes, nearly 38,000,000 striped bass were released in 2017, and of those fish 9%--around 3,400,000—probably died shortly thereafter.

But that means that 91% of them—about 34,000,000 lived.

And when you’re trying to rebuild the stock, it’s the live fish that matter.

So here on the coast, where a 28-inch minimum size is currently the rule (I’m leaving Chesapeake Bay—which for the most part means Maryland—out of the discussion right now, just to keep the numbers constant, although Maryland was the single largest contributor to recreational striped bass mortality), any striped bass that meets that minimum may be legally tossed into a cooler, where mortality is an even 100%, and the survival rate is, correspondingly, zero.

When you look at it that way, the increase in release mortality that would, in theory, result from increasing the minimum size doesn’t look all that bad—9 percent instead of 100.

Just how many fish an upped limit might save, and how many more released fish would die is hard to estimate, because it’s impossible to guess what any new size limit might be.  Right now, we’re hearing a lot of suggestions, with a slot limit of some sort, or a return to the old 36-inch minimum, probably leading the pack, but until the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee comes up with a recommendation, all of those suggestions are just shots in the dark.  No one has any idea what the size limit needed to rebuild the stock ought to be.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that the minimum size was raised from 28 to 36 inches, and apply that change to bass landings here in New York (again, using New York to avoid the Chesapeake Bay-related issues that we’d have to deal with if calculations were made on a coastwide basis). 

Such a 200,000 fish savings would amount to a 42% reduction in landings, which is significant, despite the price paid in additional release mortality.

Again, those numbers are only an approximation.  Some people argue that, if the size limit were raised, anglers would fish longer, and end up releasing more fish, in order to land their one “keeper.”  If they did so, the argument goes, release mortality would spike, and minimize the benefits of a higher size limit.

While there may be a small kernel of truth in such argument--some people would fish longer and so release more bass than they would if the size limit were lower--it's extremely doubtful that the number of such anglers would be high enough to cause significant harm, since most striped bass anglers don’t fish primarily for meat; a very substantial majority of the striped bass caught are already returned to the ocean rather than killed.

Clearly, all of those releases weren’t optional—quite a few of the released bass would have been undersized.  But the percentage of fish released has remained fairly consistent, and without any clear trend, from year to year, even though the proportion of undersized to legal fish would have changed annually as various year classes moved through the population. 

Thus, in 2014, anglers kept more than 22% of their catch—the high for the time series—but one year after, in 2015, retained fewer than 10% of all bass landed.  A year later, New York's striped bass anglers landed more than 15% of their catch.  Such seemingly random fluctuations are best accounted for by the level of error inherent in the data, rather than significant changes in actual retention rates—the 15% average is probably a good approximation of the proportion of striped bass killed.

In such a catch-and-release fishery, it’s not likely that too many anglers stop fishing after they keep their one-bass daily limit, although a few may do so.  On the other hand, there are certainly unscrupulous anglers who “highgrade,” keeping the first legal fish that they catch, and then dumping it over the side, at best badly stressed and more probably dead, when they land a larger one.  (It should be noted that in some fisheries, such as the king salmon fishery on Alaska’s Kenai River, anglers may catch and release fish as long as they like, but as soon as they decide to keep one, they must take their line out of the water and not fish for the rest of the day, in part to prevent just that sort of behavior).  A higher minimum size would help to limit such misconduct, and thus partially offset whatever additional release mortality such higher minimum might cause.

So when we look at the numbers, we need to remember that it’s not the release mortality, standing alone, that matters—although, for the sake of the fish and ourselves, we should always do our best to keep that number down.  

What matters is the  fishing mortality rate, and its contribution to the rate of mortality from both fishing and natural causes.

Given that truth, an incremental increase in discard mortality might be a small price to pay for a far bigger decrease in the overall number of striped bass that die.