Sunday, April 28, 2019
RUNNING THIS "RED LIGHT" COULD LEAD TO STRIPED BASS CRASH
If you fish for striped bass at all seriously, you have probably heard that the latest benchmark stock assessment, completed late last year, found that the stock is both overfished and experiencing overfishing.
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.
By 2011, the decline was gaining steam and becoming harder to ignore. For a while, it looked as if the Management Board would do the right thing, and initiate an addendum that would reduce landings in time to halt the population’s slide. An update to the stock assessment, which predicted that the striped bass stock would become overfished by 2017, added some urgency to that effort.
But, in a move that disheartened many serious striped bass anglers, the Management Board inexplicably decided that, despite the clear warnings contained in the stock assessment update, striped bass remained a “green light” fishery, although one slightly more cautious Board member conceded that
“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.
The Management Board came to another “yellow light” two years later, when a new benchmark stock assessment found that, while the stock was not yet overfished, fishing mortality had been above target levels for a while; the spawning stock biomass had also dropped below its target.
Under such a scenario, Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass clearly states that the Management 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,”
“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.
It was willing to adopt an addendum that was designed to reduce fishing mortality to target within more-or-less one year.
I say “more-or-less” because it would have taken an 25% reduction, compared to 2013, to adequately reduce fishing mortality within the one-year deadline, but what the Management Board finally did was to impose such 25% reduction on coastal fisheries, but only impose a 20.5% reduction, compared to 2012, on the Chesapeake fisheries.
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.
What the addendum completely failed to do was establish a plan to rebuild the stock within the 10-year deadline. ASMFC staff used the excuse that
“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?