Thursday, October 31, 2019
THE ASMFC ADOPTS FLAWED STRIPED BASS ADDENDUM VI
On Wednesday, October 30, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board adopted Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.
Addendum VI, as originally contemplated by the Management Board, was already inadequate to address the problems faced by the striped bass stock. A benchmark striped bass stock assessment, presented to the Management Board earlier this year, found that the striped bass stock is both overfished and experiencing overfishing, findings that came as no surprise to serious striped bass anglers.
Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass clearly states that, if the stock experiences overfishing, the Management Board must adopt measures to return fishing mortality to the target level within one year, and that if the stock becomes overfished, the Management Board must adopt measures to rebuild the female spawning stock biomass to the target level within ten years.
The draft version of Addendum VI represented a reasonable effort to address the overfishing problem, but completely ignored the requirement to return the biomass to target within ten years. The latter action will, supposedly, be addressed in another management action that won’t be initiated until next May, and might or might not be adopted by the Management Board at some point in the indefinite future.
But even the narrow focus of the draft Addendum VI didn’t save it from Management Board members who were seeking to reduce its effectiveness, at least with respect to their own states’ fisheries.
As written, the draft Addendum VI would have a 50 percent probability of reducing fishing mortality by 18%. It proposed a number of different options, each of which, if followed to the letter, should have been sufficient to achieve that goal.
One option would have required the commercial and recreational fisheries to each reduce fishing mortality by 18%; the other would have placed most of the conservation onus on the recreational fishery, requiring it to reduce its fishing mortality by 20 percent, with only a 1.8 percent reduction imposed on the commercial side. (There was also an option to do nothing, but that received no serious attention; everyone recognized that, given the state of the bass, they had to do something to help rebuild the stock.)
Which way to go on those basic options was the first decision that the Management Board had to make. Pat Keliher, the fisheries director from Maine, moved to adopt Option 2, which would require both sectors to reduce fishing mortality by 18%. Richard White, the Governor’s Appointee from New Hampshire, seconded the motion.
So far, the new Addendum was on track. But soon after discussion on the motion began, things went off the rails.
Before the debate had a chance to get underway, Adam Nowalsky, the Legislative Proxy from New Jersey, broke in, questioning the motion’s language about an “equal percentage reduction” and turned the discussion from one about fishing mortality reduction to one about “conservation equivalency.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the way things work at the ASMFC, “conservation equivalency” is a management tool that allows states to adopt regulations that are different from, but supposedly have the same conservation effect as, the regulatory package adopted by the ASMFC in a management plan. It’s a good idea in theory, but in practice, it has shown quite a few warts, mainly because in the real world, it often provides a path for states to kill more fish than they would have otherwise been allowed to under measures spelled out in a management plan.
After Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was adopted in 2014, and established a 1 fish bag limit and 28-inch minimum size for all coastal anglers, New Jersey used conservation equivalency to finagle an extra striped bass for its anglers, manipulating the catch data to show that a regulation allowing anglers to kill one 28 to 40-inch bass, plus a second bass over 43 inches, was equivalent to the ASMFC’s proposed 1@28 inches rule.
Apparently, based on New Jersey’s 2013 landings, prohibiting anglers from keeping a bass in the very narrow 40 to 43-inch slot entitled those anglers to a whole second fish. You have to wonder how many length combinations New Jersey had to run through their models before they found the right one…
Given Nowalsky’s comments, it was pretty clear that he was setting the scene for history to repeat itself.
Both he and his colleague, Tom Fote, the New Jersey Governor’s Appointee, made repeated comments about how the management measures in Addendum VI would impact some states more than others, and it eventually came out that New Jersey would probably be impacted more than any other state—not surprising, given that its anglers were allowed to kill two bass per day while anglers in every other coastal state, except for little Delaware, could only kill one.
Because of their special, supposedly “conservation equivalent” regulations, New Jersey anglers took home about 625,000 striped bass in 2017, head and shoulders above the next-largest harvests of about 475,000 bass in New York and 400,000 in Massachusetts. But while it was OK for New Jersey to have the highest landings, it was certainly not OK, at least in the New Jersey folks’ eyes, to take the biggest reduction.
So Nowalsky moved to table the discussion on the “meat” of Addendum VI, the management measures, in order to decide how conservation equivalency was going to be calculated. Because, of course, how many fish you can kill is far more important than how many you can conserve.
At least, it is in New Jersey.
Nowalsky’s motion ultimately failed, with 5 in favor, 8 against, and the two federal agencies abstaining, but that didn’t really matter. It just pushed the conservation equivalency issue a little farther down the line.
At that point, the original motion was back on the table, at least for a minute, and then there was another diversion as Eric Reid, Legislative Proxy from Rhode Island, made a motion to substitute Option 3 for Option 2, and cut recreational mortality by 20 percent, and commercial by just 1.8. John Clark, a Delaware fisheries manager, liked that idea enough to second the motion, but he was in a distinct minority, with the motion garnering only 4 supporting votes.
Finally, Option 2, which had received overwhelming support at the public meetings and in comments sent in to the ASMFC, was put to the vote, and passed with a total of 11 votes in favor and 4 opposed.
That was a good start.
After that, it was time to decide on coastal management measures. The options all included a 1-fish bag limit, but gave the Management Board a choice between a 35-inch minimum size, a 28 to 35-inch slot, a 30 to 38-inch slot or a 32 to 40-inch slot. All would supposedly meet the 18 percent reduction goal, with some of the slots achieving more, although Addendum VI included some caveats about the slots’ long-term impacts.
I favored the 35-inch minimum size, both to avoid the slots’ tendency to concentrate harvest on the very year classes needed to rebuild the stock, and because it would allow the 2011 and 2015 year classes to spawn two or three times before they were vulnerable to harvest, while the 28 to 35-inch slot, at least, would allow some fish to be removed from the stock before they had spawned even once.
That being said, I had heard enough scuttlebutt coming out of the meeting to know that one of the slots, probably the 28-35, was going to be the most likely choice of the Management Board—even though anglers speaking at the various meetings that ASMFC held, and anglers who sent comments in, preferred the 35-inch minimum by a ratio of more than 3 to 1.
The rumors turned out to be true. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fisheries manager, moved for the 28-35 slot, explaining that he felt that such slot would minimize release mortality. He noted that anglers in some places, and in some sectors, would release too many bass in their efforts to find a 35-inch fish, and cause such mortality to spike. His choice was also influenced by a desire to protect the oldest, largest females in the spawning stock.
Michael Luisi, a fisheries manager from Maryland, seconded the motion, largely because he felt that Maryland charter boats would have a hard time finding larger fish. A few members of the Management Board objected to the motion, with Richard White of New Hampshire pointing out that anglers overwhelmingly preferred the 35-inch minimum, and reminding the Board that it was a single, high minimum size that brought the stock back from collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Jim Gilmore, New York’s fisheries director, commented that while New York anglers sent conflicting signals (comments made at the ASMFC meetings differed from those made in a state Internet survey) angler comment that the 36-inch minimum worked to rebuild the stock before and would also work now “Rings in my head” and caused him to lean toward the 35-inch minimum. Tom Fote of New Jersey also spoke in favor of the 35-inch minimum, due to its historical success, while John McMurray, Legislative Proxy from New York, said that he favored 1@35” both because of the broad public support and because the anglers who wanted the 28 to 35-inch slot felt that way because it would allow them to kill and take home the very fish from the 2011 and 2015 year classes that Addendum VI was supposed to protect.
As I mentioned earlier, I preferred 1@35 inches, but I could tolerate the slot on a “better than nothing” basis and the hope that the Technical Committee was right when they calculated it would result in a 19 percent reduction.
But Nowalsky brought up conservation equivalency again, and the hope for a real 19 percent reduction went straight out the door.
There were three ways that the conservation equivalency issue could have been handled. A state could have been required to craft alternate management measures that would meet or exceed the needed coastwide 18 percent reduction. A state could have been required to craft alternate management measures that would meet or exceed the reduction calculated for the management measure that was adopted—in the case of the 28 to 35-inch slot, 19 percent. Or, a state could have been required to craft alternate management measures that would meet or exceed the reduction that such particular state would have experienced if it adopted the management measure approved by the Board—which in the case of New Jersey, would apparently have been substantially more than 18 or 19 percent
It should come as no surprise that when Nowalsky rose to amend the motion on the floor, he chose to add the least restrictive conservation equivalency option—18 percent compared to 2017 landings.
Jason McNamee, Rhode Island’s fishery manager, spoke to Nowalsky's motion to amend. His comments were critical.
He observed that “You’re either in or you’re out,” and that “Conservation equivalency can’t work like this, because we’re not going to achieve our goals,” alluding to the fact that if New Jersey’s “conservation equivalent” regulations didn’t achieve the same reductions, in New Jersey, that the slot limit would have, the odds against reducing fishing mortality to the target level increase.
Despite such comments, Nowalsky’s amendment passed by a vote of 11 to 2, with two abstentions, and the amended motion passed 12 to 1, again with two abstaining.
At that point, the chances of Addendum VI achieving its goal took a nosedive.
It’s just simple math.
When the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee determined that the measures included in Addendum VI would have a 50% chance of reducing fishing mortality by the required 18 percent, it made all of the calculations on a coastwide basis. That doesn’t mean that such regulations would impact every state in the same way. Some states, because of how their fishery works, might not see much change in their fishing mortality, while other states—including New Jersey—might experience reductions significantly larger than 18 percent.
But when everything was averaged out, Addendum VI would have had a good chance of reducing fishing mortality to the target level, and a better than 90 percent chance of ending overfishing.
However, if the fishing mortality reduction in a big striped bass harvesting state such as New Jersey is limited to just 18 percent, when it would have been much greater under the coastwide measure, the numbers no longer work. Because New Jersey won’t take the reduction that it would have taken pursuant to coastwide measures, the average coastwide reduction will no longer be 18 percent, but some lower figure.
At that point, the probability that fishing mortality will be reduced to the target level is no longer 50 percent, but some lower percentage as well. The probability bell curve is now skewed toward failure.
That doesn’t mean that success is impossible. The lack of striped bass could well discourage some anglers from fishing, or at least from fishing as often. And a dearth of striped bass might keep anglers from catching many fish, even when they do venture out. Striped bass landings, measured in numbers of fish, for the first eight months of this year are nearly 250,000 fish—more than 15 percent—lower than they were for the same period in 2018. If that trend continues, fishing mortality might be reduced to target even though Addendum VI is was badly damaged by Nowalsky's amendment.
But even if that happy accident occurs, managers must come to realize that Addendum VI is nonetheless badly flawed.
That flaw doesn’t stem from the fact that it imposes a slot limit, despite the fact that many of us would have liked to have seen something else.
It stems from the fact that conservation equivalency, as applied in Nowalsky's amendment, sabotages the Addendum’s chances of achieving its goal, because it reduces the size of the fishing mortality cuts that occur in the real world to something significantly less than they need to be.
It is well past time for the Management Board to stop blindly accepting conservation equivalency standards that all but assure that management plans will fail. But for now, wee can only hope that the striped bass don’t pay too high a price for the Management Board’s recent mistake.