If you listened in on the seven-hour marathon that was the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s most recent Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board meeting, there’s a fair chance that you didn’t hear every word that everyone said. There was just too much going on.
Thus, it’s very possible that when Pat Kelliher, the saltwater fisheries manager from Maine and the new Chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, made a brief comment about a recent striped bass meeting in his home state, a lot of people probably missed it. And that’s too bad, because the comment was something that both anglers and every ASMFC commissioner ought to think about very long and hard.
I didn’t transcribe the comment word for word, so I’m not going to put it in quotes. But the gist of the matter was that Maine held a meeting to talk about changing its size limit for striped bass from a 28-inch minimum size to a 28 to 35-inch slot, but when the meeting got underway, anglers’ comments focused far less on the size limit than they did on the failures of the ASMFC.
Pat said that he was surprised and concerned to hear that, and I believe that he was. I’ve known him for the past twenty years or more, and he has always had a deep concern for the health of the striped bass stock, and for all of Maine’s marine resources—something he demonstrated again at last week’s meeting, when he was one of the most outspoken advocates for striped bass conservation.
I’m pretty confident that he’ll do the right thing, but all of the commissioners need to think about the comment he made, and understand its implications. Because if you talk most striped bass fishermen who understand how fisheries management works, the odds are very good that their views of the ASMFC aren’t much different than the views of those anglers at the meeting up in Maine.
There’s even good reason to believe that more than a few of the current ASMFC commissioners have their own doubts about the job that the ASMFC is doing, but aren’t acting anywhere near aggressively enough to get the Commission back on track.
The evidence for that came out last week, in the form of survey results presented at Thursday’s meeting of the ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Program Policy Board.
Every year, the ASMFC conducts a survey of its commissioners. One portion of the survey asks the commissioners to provide a rating, based on a 1 to 10 scale, of the ASMFC’s performance in a number of areas; another portion asks the same commissioners to provide free-form answers to a handful of questions. This year’s responses were enlightening, particular when read together with Pat Kelliher’s comments about the Maine anglers’ frustrations with the ASMFC.
Participation in the survey is voluntary; this year, 31 commissioners—about 2/3 of the total, responded. For the most part, the commissioners were relatively happy with the Commission’s work; scores for all but two questions were higher this year, although often by not very much, with the average satisfaction rating for all of the questions 7.7 out of 10.
The highest ratings went to questions like “How satisfied are you that the Commission effectively and efficiently utilizes available fiscal and human resources?” (8.65) and “The Commission has a limited scope of authority. How comfortable are you that the Commission spends the appropriate amount of resources on issues within its control?” (8.58).
I don’t think that too many people feel that the ASMFC doesn’t use its resources wisely, so that all makes sense.
But it is the questions that got the lowest ratings that are the most interesting, and deserve some real attention. The question that rated lowest of all, at 6.61, was
The other two questions which received low scores—7.19 for both—were
Those low responses should be setting off quite a few alarm bells, since the Commission’s Vision statement is
If you take the position that the Commission’s Vision statement is a summation of the Commission’s responsibilities to the public and to the resource, and then consider the fact that the commissioners responding to the survey seem to think that the Commission is doing a fairly lousy job of managing recovered stocks, and not doing too much better at either ending overfishing or even cooperating with one another, it’s not hard to conclude that the commissioners themselves realize that, as a body, they’re not doing their job very well.
When viewed in that light, the comments made by the striped bass fishermen up in Maine become much less surprising.
Of course, some might argue that the Vision statement merely represents an aspiration, and that the Commission’s real job is set forth in its Mission statement, which reads
At first, that seems like an impossible mission to undertake, as it requires the “promotion” of such fisheries, which suggests high levels of fishing, while at the same time also requiring the “protection” of the same fisheries, which would seem to suggest ending the overfishing, and rebuilding the overfished stocks, that could easily result from “promotion.”
The only conceivable way to reconcile those two seemingly incompatible goals would be to protect stocks in order to let biomass increase to levels that would produce maximum sustainable yield, which would then allow the greatest possible level of “promotion.”
But to do that, everybody will have to cooperate to end overfishing and properly manage recovered stocks, so the responses to the survey still seem to indicate that at least some commissioners aren’t really happy with the way that the ASMFC is—or isn’t—doing its primary job.
Granted, the issue of managing rebuilt stocks could seem a trick question—or, perhaps, require trick answers—because the only stock that the Commission has ever rebuilt, in its more than seventy-five years of existence (and since it was given more enforceable management powers, by the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act in 1993) was Atlantic striped bass, and it has allowed that stock to become overfished once again. Based on that performance, its rating should probably have been a bottom-of-the-barrel 1.0.
However, the ASMFC also co-manages a number of species with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has successfully rebuilt a number of stocks, including black sea bass, summer flounder, and scup, and there are some commissioners who often comment that the regulations of those species is too restrictive, so it’s impossible to know whether the low score on that point means that commissioners are unhappy that the Commission allowed fishermen to kill too many striped bass, that they’re unhappy that the Commission forced fishermen to kill too few of the federally-managed species, or some combination of the two.
But there’s no ambiguity on the ending overfishing or cooperation issues. There, the Commission is, in some eyes, clearly dropping the ball.
That comes through in the free-form comments when, in response to the question
some commissioners responded by writing
and, once again,
although the impacts of climate change emerged as their greatest concern.
Yet some commissioners also seem to be part of the problem, because they don’t believe that rebuilding overfished stocks is all that important. Over all, commissioners only gave a 7.23 rating in response to the question
That rating has been steadily declining from the 7.80 that commissioners gave it when the question was first asked in 2014, making it seem that commissioners view ending overfishing as having less and less value as a measure of progress.
Yet, if the Commission has a Vision of sustainable fisheries, and a Mission to protect those fisheries, ending overfishing would seem to be a critical aspect of its job. Trying to overfish a stock back to sustainable levels is an exercise in futility.
Some commissioners clearly understand that. In response to the question
one commissioner responded
Yet there are others who take the opposite view, and responded to the same question by saying
That contrast in views goes a long way to explain why the ASMFC has such a dismal record in ending overfishing and rebuilding and maintaining overfished stocks that are within its sole jurisdiction. But it’s not an excuse.
If the Commission’s Vision of sustainable, cooperatively-managed stocks is ever going to represent more than mere words, and if the Commission is ever going to live up to its Mission of protecting (if only to make it more feasible to promote) Atlantic coast fisheries, than it has to first admit that every commissioner’s primary duty is to cooperate with one another in order to end overfishing and properly manage rebuilt stocks.
If they fail to do that, no progress with be made.
Yet by some commisioners' own admission, they're failing at that job right now.