Thursday, July 30, 2020


At the August 2019 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, a motion was put on the table to initiate a new amendment to the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan.

The vote on that motion has been postponed several times, for various reasons, but is expected to occur when the Management Board meets on August 4.

In order to facilitate the amendment process—because it is a foregone conclusion that the motion will receive broad support—the Management Board assembled a Work Group of its members to decide on topics to be addressed in the new amendment.

Thus, I was eager to see what sort of recommendations the Work Group would come up with, because whatever the proposed new amendment looks like, it will probably govern how striped bass are managed for the rest of my angling life, and very possibly the rest of my actual life as well.

The Work Group report has now been released and, unfortunately, if some of its recommendations become part of the new amendment, what remains of a viable striped bass fishery probably won't last much longer than I do.

What became very clear as I reads the Work Group report is that fisheries managers still don’t comprehend the nature of the striped bass fishery.

A primarily recreational fishery, that sees most anglers fishing for pure recreation and not for meat, is a fishery that ought to be managed to maximize an abundance of fish in the water, and not a pile of dead fish on the dock.  Yet the Management Board remains focused on yield; abundance does not appear to be a major concern.

The Work Group’s biases, and its blindness to the realities of the recreational striped bass fishery, are evidenced throughout the report.

“In the post moratorium era (ending 1990), the management of Atlantic striped bass has largely been a story of success."



Has anyone noticed that the last benchmarks stock assessment found that the stock was both overfished and subject to overfishing?

If that’s anyone’s definition of success, I hope those folks aren’t in the military, or surgeons, or managing anyone’s money, because that sort of “success” could leave a lot of people either dead broke or just plain dead.

It didn’t do the bass very much good, either.

If you actually look at the last three decades of striped bass management, it’s hard to call anything that the Management Board did a “success,” largely because the Management Board hardly did anything at all.

The Management Board’s real success came during the late 1980s, after it adopted Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.

After that amendment lead to a rebuilt stock in 1995, the Management Board more or less got lucky, with favorable environmental conditions leading to very strong year classes in 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2003.  It could sit on its hands and bask in the glow of a healthy stock for more than a decade.

But when recruitment began to decline after 2004, the Management Board kept sitting on its hands, even as the female spawning stock biomass began to decline as well. 

It called a stock on its way to becoming overfished "a green light fishery."

When the 2012 stock assessment indicated that the stock wasn't in a good place, and that more restrictive measures were needed, the Management Board made a modest effort to reduce fishing mortality, but failed to adopt a 10-year rebuilding plan, even though Amendment 6 to the management plan required it to do

After the most recent benchmark stock assessment found the stock to be both overfished and subject to overfishing, that scenario replayed itself once again.

If that’s considered “a story of success” at the ASMFC, it’s easy to understand why they haven’t managed to rebuild, and then maintain, a single fish stock under their care in the past 75-plus years.

And things in the Work Group report went downhill from there.

It turns out that the Work Group is somewhat obsessed with what it called “management stability;” that is, putting regulations in place and then not changing them for an extended period of time.

“The [Work Group] noted that management stability should be thought of as a two-way street where management stays the same in good and bad years (i.e., avoid knee-jerk reactions if fishing mortality (F) goes above or below target for 1 year).”

Since Management Trigger 3 in Amendment 6 already requires at least two years of F above target, along with a below-target biomass, before action is taken, the point of that statement isn’t completely clear.

“There was strong support from [Work Group] members to revisit the management triggers.

I have to admit that when I read that one, I almost fell off the couch.

“The triggers require constant change?”

That’s a total break from reality.

And the Management Board ignored triggers 2 and 4 anyway...

Two management changes over the course of 17 years hardly constitutes “constant change.”

Perhaps just one management trigger that suggests “flexible” action once the stock has completely collapsed?

Yet that aversion to regulatory change—the same aversion that led us to an overfished stock today—colors the Work Group’s approach to matters as critical as rebuilding the striped bass stock.

“The [Work Group] began its discussion with a question regarding the evaluation of management success:

Uncertainty is no stranger to the fishery management process; every management body, state, regional, or federal, deals with uncertainty every day.

But if you’re dedicated to “management stability,” and basically want to sit on your hands for a decade or so, regardless of what’s happening to the stock, then go out for a few beers after the Management Board meeting and toast to your great “success,” that’s probably not an attractive option.

The basic problem is, at it so often is at the ASMFC, that the Work Group places more emphasis on how their actions impact people than they do on how they impact the fish that the ASMFC is entrusted to manage.

That comes through in comments like

“the new [Marine Recreational Information Program] numbers changed the Commission’s understanding of stock status, and given the shift in magnitude of removals, the degree of required action and its effects on stakeholders should be considered carefully.”

It would make more sense for a fisheries manager to be primarily concerned on the effects of

The Work Group also apparently believes that

“a potential goal of the Striped Bass [fishery management plan] should be to improve relationships between the various groups, whether that be between the commercial or recreational sectors or between the coastal states and the Chesapeake Bay region.”

How about just rebuilding the stock to true abundance?

But that’s the sort of insight that has apparently not yet taken hold among striped bass managers.

I’m trying to keep this essay from going to long, and strongly suggest that you read the entire Work Group report for yourself; you can find it at

But before I close, I have to note that no better proof of the Work Group being almost completely disconnected from the realities of the recreational, surf and private boat, catch and release fishery that is responsible for at least 80% of all striped bass fishing mortality than its approach to release mortality, something that the Work Group named the number one priority for any new amendment.

“Multiple members of the [Work Group] indicated that recreational dead discards may be the single most important issue at this time, and addressing (or reducing discards) is the most important action that can be taken going forward.

But why?

Could you imagine, with respect to another fishery, a manager saying “Recreational landings [and/or commercial landings] accounted for 80% of the fishing mortality, and there is a critical need to address this issue?”

I couldn’t.

What the members of the Work Group, and of the Management Board, can’t seem to get their mind around is that, in a primarily catch and release fishery, much if not most of the fishing mortality is going to come from release mortality, because people aren’t taking many fish home.

And it doesn’t matter, so long as overall fishing mortality remains within sustainable parameters.  

Yes, we should try to do all we can to assure that a released fish will survive.

But to the fish themselves, dead is dead.

Consider the recreational fishery for an essentially inedible (at least for most people) species such as tarpon or bonefish. managers see nothing wrong with

But because the Management Board, and for that matter, most saltwater fisheries managers, are laser-focused on harvest, the idea of accepting the discard mortality that necessarily accompanies catch and release is very, very foreign.

That’s a mindset that isn’t going to change any time soon, and it is symptomatic of the biggest problem that conservation-minded anglers are going to have going into the Amendment 7 debate:

The Working Group report tells us that.

It also tells us that nothing is likely to change at the ASMFC, at least not from the inside.  If we want fish-focused management for striped bass and other species, we’re going to have to convince Congress to make that happen.

Otherwise, it will be business as usual, lots of sitting on hands, and calling an overfished stock a success.

The fight over Amendment 6 was tough and years-long, and we were happy to come out with a draw.

Judging from the Work Group report, the fight over any new amendment will be worse.

Because it looks like the bass is going to need all the help it can get to come out intact from this one.

Sunday, July 26, 2020


Every fish is part of an ecosystem, and plays a role in keeping its ecosystem intact.

There are predators and prey, specialists and generalists, aggressive hunters of smaller fish and those that subsist by filter feeding on plankton.

While all are different in their own way, in one respect, they’re all the same:  Removing any one of them from an ecosystem will have impacts on other ecosystem components.  And while that’s true of all species, it’s particularly true of the smaller “forage fish” that tie together the food web, feeding largely on plankton while being preyed upon by a host of larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.

Yet fisheries managers have largely ignored fishes’ ecological role when managing various species.  The only passing consideration that they gave it was to include “natural mortality,” or the rate at which a species might perish as a result of predation, ocean conditions, or other non-anthropogenic causes, in the calculations that lead to estimates of stock health and acceptable harvest levels.

But it always was harvest levels, whether acceptable or otherwise, that was at the heart of such calculations.  At best, the goal was maintaining fisheries that were sustainable in the long term, taking natural mortality into consideration.  What was rarely if ever considered was the impact of overall mortality, including both natural and fishing mortality, on the ability of a given species to perform its traditional role in the ecosystem, and support other populations that depended upon it, to a greater or lesser degree, for their own sustainability.

Instead of setting annual catch limits on a single-species basis, where the only concern is setting harvest levels low enough to assure that the fishery will remain sustainable in the long term, regardless of its impacts on the ecosystem, such catch limits might be calculated based not only on sustainable landings, but also on the need to leave enough menhaden in the water to allow the fish to fulfill their traditional role in the food web.

Of course, food webs represent the interlocking relationships between many species, both animal and plant, and it would be very difficult, and likely a practical impossibility, to accurately reflect all of those relationships in a mathematical model.  Fortunately, in order to properly manage Atlantic menhaden, such complexity isn’t required.

Scientists instead modeled the ecological role of the Atlantic menhaden with respect to four predators—striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, and spiny dogfish—as well as one other forage species, the Atlantic herring.  It turned out that even that much detail isn’t required.  As the Ecological Reference Point Work Group and Atlantic Menhaden Technical Committee recently reported in a memorandum to the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board,

“Atlantic striped bass was the focal species for the example [ecological reference points] because it was the most sensitive predator fish species to Atlantic menhaden harvest in the…model, so an [ecological reference point] target and threshold that sustained striped bass would likely not cause additional declines for other predators in the model assuming no other major perturbations to the food web/ecosystem structure.”

Again, the meeting will be held as a webinar, but the May meeting proved to the ASMFC that webinars work, and so the Commission now feels comfortable addressing complex management issues such as ecological reference points in such a setting.

When the postponed motion comes up for a vote, the Management Board will hopefully move forward, to include ecological reference points in the Atlantic menhaden management plan.  If they do so, a decade-long effort by conservation groups and some angling organizations will be on the verge of success.

“menhaden are critical forage for a wide diversity of marine life in the Atlantic, including many commercially and recreationally-valuable fish like striped bass, bluefish, tuna, cod, king mackerel and tarpon, as well as many species of seabirds and marine mammals…[T]he ecological reference points are based on the best available science from the Ecological Reference Points Assessment that the [Atlantic Menhaden Management] Board approved for management use in February.  [internal formatting omitted]”
Wild Oceans wisely wants to see menhaden managed to the ecological reference point target, and asks anyone commenting on the issue to

“Insist that the ASMFC adopt the new [ecological reference points] with the clear intent of managing to the [ecological reference point] TARGET.  Maintaining abundance in the water is the goal for a forage species, not simply preventing the collapse of menhaden and its predators (managing to the threshold).”

“We urge you to adopt the [Ecosystem Reference Point] Work Group-recommended and peer-reviewed [ecosystem reference point] target of 0.19 and threshold of 0.57.  We also encourage you to commit on the record and to the public that the Board intends to conservatively manage to this new target reference point, defined as the maximum fishing mortality rate (F) on Atlantic menhaden that sustains striped bass at their biomass target when striped bass are fished at their F target.  As striped bass and other menhaden predators, as well as numerous prey species, along the Atlantic coast continue to struggle, managing to the new, more protective [ecological reference point] target becomes key.  Doing so will not only serve to encourage recovery of these species, but can also buffer the negative impacts of swings in menhaden population abundance and recruitment at a time when the ecosystem is rapidly changing.  It will have the added benefit of bolstering forage availability for predators that also rely on depleted prey like Atlantic herring…particularly in New England where older fish return if the population is healthy and hopefully in the South Atlantic where a recovery has not yet happened.”
Again, it all makes sense. 

The problem is that managing menhaden with ecological reference points could, at some point, require harvest to be cut.

That’s not the case today, when the actual fishing mortality is slightly lower than the ecological reference point target.  But should menhaden abundance decline, maintaining a fishing mortality rate at or below the ecological reference point target could require a harvest reduction, and there are people out there who could very well be opposed to that.

And those people, and their allies on the Management Board, could very well oppose the adoption of ecological reference points for just that reason, knowing that traditional, single-species management will allow them a larger kill, even if the stock declines.

All comments should be emailed to, and the ASMFC notes that the comments should clearly include the commenter's desires about distribution—that is, “include in supplemental materials” or “distribute to Management Board.”  Also, the “subject” line of the email should clearly indicate that the email addresses “Atlantic Menhaden ecological reference points.”

It only takes a few minutes to compose an adequate email, that will let managers know that you would like to see menhaden managed for their ecosystem role, and not merely for their value as bait or as fish meal.  Helping to convince them that is the case will pay dividends in the number of striped bass, bluefish and other species that we’ll be able to catch in the future.

Thursday, July 23, 2020


At the time, I expressed real concern that managers would have little or no 2020 data to guide their fisheries decisions, and that management, and fish stocks, could suffer as a result.

We now have a little more information on how the National Marine Fisheries Service hopes to move forward.  While the situation still is not good, it appears that we will not be facing as worst case scenario, and NMFS staff is working to find a rational approach to what will still be a difficult season.

Dr. Cody and Ms. Kelly combined to provide a very detailed and very candid description of the challenges that NMFS has faced, and will continue to face, this year in collecting recreational fishing data, filling in the gaps where data is missing, and crafting recreational regulations that meet the legal standards for avoiding overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks, without unnecessarily burdening anglers.

Dr. Cody began the webinar, briefly describing the various surveys included in MRIP, and explaining that in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, COVID’s biggest impact is on the so-called Access Point Angler Intercept Survey (APAIS), in which surveyors conduct in-person interviews with anglers, ask a number of questions about their fishing day, and actually count and measure the fish that anglers harvest.

The COVID impacts have been about what one might expect.  State rules about “phased reopening” determined whether the APAIS survey could be conducted at all.  In places where surveying was still possible, each state provided its own protocols with respect to how it could be conducted.  As all state reopening plans were and are subject to change as the rate of infection ebbs and flows, the APAIS process remains somewhat uncertain and subject to local interruption.

As a result, catch sampling has been incomplete, and the process remains challenging.  COVID’s first impacts manifested themselves in late March and early April, the heart of “Wave 2;” sampling was suspended for a part of late April.  As a result, no catch estimates for Wave 2 will be released.

Sampling coverage was also limited in Wave 3 (May-June) and will inevitably be limited in Wave 4 (July-August) as well; so far, for all of this year, Dr. Cody described both the geographical and temporal coverage as “spotty.”  “Social distancing” also makes it much more difficult for surveyors to interview anglers and check their catch, so there will be fewer interviews conducted than there would be in a typical year.  

As a result, NMFS will have less, and less reliable, data with respect to catch per unit effort (how many fish anglers catch in a given amount of time, which is generally a good indication of relative abundance), the species that compose anglers’ catch, and the size of the fish being landed.

Because of such incomplete sampling, Dr. Cody said that there was

“the potential for some serious bias”
in the APAIS data.  

That is troubling, because the recreational catch rate information provided by APAIS is a key input used to calculate recreational catch and landings.  Since recreational catch and landings estimates are then used in biologists’ estimates of stock health, biased APAIS data has the potential to create real problems for managers.

The good news is that, although the APAIS data is going to be iffy this year, the Fishing Effort Survey, which is conducted by mail, along with the For-Hire Telephone Survey, have been largely unaffected by COVID so far.  That could change, if the contractor conducting the surveys is impacted by the virus and is unable to perform at current levels, but to date, the effort surveys seem to be on track.

That’s important, because with many people unemployed or working from home, fishing effort seems to have increased substantially.  There has been a lot of anecdotal comments to that effect, and if those comments are, in fact, true, they could foreshadow a big increase in recreational harvest. 

Once NMFS has the effort figures in hand, it will be better able to determine whether or not such an increase has actually occurred.  However, it will still be very difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of 2020 recreational landings.

Dr. Cody noted that the approaches to deal with the missing data are “very limited,” and that there will be “significant data gaps.”  NMFS is looking at two basic options:  It can create a model that addresses known gaps in the data, but creating such model will take a lot of time.  Any such model probably wouldn’t be completed by the end of the year, and would still require NMFS to make some assumptions about recreational catch and effort.

NMFS’ other option is to use “imputation,” which means taking data from other years and using it to plug holes in the information it has for 2020.  Such imputation has been used before to fill gaps in fisheries data, but never on the scale that would be required this year; if NMFS used imputed data and fishermen didn’t like the results (i.e., it resulted in additional restrictions on landings), there is a very good chance that the validity of such data would be challenged.

It’s possible that NMFS may also use what Dr. Cody called “auxiliary data sets,” such as the vessel trip reports (VTRs) filed by for-hire vessels or other sources of recreational fishing information, to color its decisions.  Such data sets aren’t perfect, but Dr. Cody felt comfortable that VTRs landings information, for example, could be somewhat ground-truthed by comparing them to APAIS data, although the limited number of interviews will limit the efficacy of that approach. 

However, absent video in a vessel’s cockpit, or an observer on board, it is impossible to know for certain whether VTR information on the number of fish released, and whether they were returned to the water alive, dead or dying.  He noted that the question of accurate VTR information has become “a growing issue” as regulations become more restrictive.

But in the end, both NMFS and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will need some sort of estimates to guide them is setting 2020 regulations. 

Ms. Kelly took over the webinar at that point to describe how the regulation-setting process should work.

She explained that the regulatory process has three basic steps.  There is data gathering and compilation, there is the ASMFC and the regional fishery management councils deciding what to do with such data, and there is the rulemaking process itself.

The data and collection process involves all of the issues that Dr. Cody described, including potentially biased APAIS data, imputation, the use of auxiliary information, etc.  Scientists must decide, for each managed species, whether they can safely assume that past catch rates might also be used for 2020 harvest estimates, or whether intervening factors make such assumption untenable.  

Ms. Kelly noted that many species are managed with multi-year specifications, which eases the data-crunching burden somewhat.  But despite such multi-year programs, NMFS still has a legal obligation to ensure that overfishing does not occur.

At some point, the scientists’ estimates and advice will be handed over to the ASMFC and the regional fishery management councils.  It is up to those bodies to decide whether, and how, management measures should be adjusted to account for the 2020 data.  

Should the annual catch limit be adjusted downward to account for management uncertainty?  If states each have a separate recreational quota, does the uncertainty in the data impact each state equally, or do some potentially face in inequitable result?  Should management bodies adopt more precautionary measures in the case of overfished stocks or those that have been subject to overfishing?

In the case of ASMFC-managed fisheries, where managers need not worry about meeting legal standards for conservation and management, the process can end there, with each affected state adopting regulations that comply with the ASMFC’s decision.  But in the case of federally-managed fisheries, where the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act applies, the rulemaking process is significantly more rigorous.

In those cases, federal managers must first determine the minimum level of data that is necessary to adequately quantify the risk of overfishing, for in all cases, whatever regulations are adopted must have at least a 50 percent probability of preventing overfishing from occurring.  Then the NMFS must be able to justify, as part of its regulatory package, why the proposed management measures meet that and other legal standards, and put its proposed measures out for public comment.  Only after the public comments have been addressed may the NMFS issue a final rule.

Which all means that fisheries managers have a difficult road ahead of them.  Thanks to the impacts of COVID-19, they will be forced to conserve and manage the nation’s fisheries resources without having all the needed information on hand.

Such situation calls out for additional precaution on the part of fisheries managers, especially in the case of overfished stocks such as striped bass and bluefish, to assure that, by failing to adopt sufficiently restrictive regulations in the face of what appears to be increased fishing effort, they make the situation worse than it is today.

But it’s clear from Dr. Cody’s and Ms. Kelly’s comments that the NMFS is working hard to develop the best information available, given the trying circumstances.

At the worst, the data situation looks somewhat better today than it did two or three months ago.

Sunday, July 19, 2020


The American Sportfishing Association—the trade association representing the fishing tackle industry—typically holds a huge, week-long trade show in Florida at this time each year, when exhibitors show off new products, political initiatives are discussed, and educational webinars for the tackle industry, the press and other interesting parties are held.

That certainly seemed to be the case with the webinar addressing striped bass recovery.

Both of those speakers gave honest and accurate appraisals of the current state of the striped bass stock and how stock health impacts the recreational striped bass fishery. 

Mr. Blinkoff, for example, accurately described changes that we’ve all seen in the approach that dedicated striped bass fishermen bring to the fishery.

“Over the past 10-14 years, what we’ve really seen is a shift in angler attitude.  Fishermen are now looking more toward catch and release.  They especially did not want to keep the bigger fish, what they referred to as the “breeders” or the “spawning size fish.”
Dr. Armstrong dedicated much of his speaking time to explain the realities of striped bass management, beginning with the somewhat ironic statement that

“Striped bass is always one of the most pleasurable species to manage, because for every angler there is another interest in how you want it managed, and from north to south we have very different interests.”
He went on to say that

“The [Chesapeake] Bay, they fish on little fish and we fish on big fish.  So trying to come to a consensus in a management regime is very difficult, but we did it.  We got the amendment [sic], the Addendum [VI], finished.  We got the [28 to 35-inch] slot size put in [for most coastal recreational fisheries].  So we accomplished a lot and we think we’re poised to bring this stock back.  But it’s not easy, and it won’t be without bumps in the road going forward…”
Dr. Armstrong also emphasized the fact—and it is a fact--that while the striped bass stock has experienced unsustainable fishing pressure, its current state is not primarily due to overfishing.  Instead,

“Recruitment in striped bass is highly variable…When you have a series of lows…we start seeing spawning stock biomass eroding, and that’s exactly what has caused the [current] erosion of spawning stock biomass, it’s these poor year classes.  It’s primarily not fishing, it’s primarily environmental causes.  And the primary cause is…the water regime in Chesapeake Bay.  When you have flood springs, you get bad recruitment.  When you get really dry springs, you get bad recruitment.  When you get nice cool, wettish springs, you get big year classes…”
He also expressed no doubt about what striped bass managers need to do to overcome the environmental issues and restore the striped bass population.

“We have to husband the big year classes along the best we can.  The only way to do that is to keep [fishing mortality] low.  [emphasis added]”
Few people with any real grasp of the principles of striped bass management are going to disagree with that statement.

But now we get to the current problem.

Managers failed to properly husband the striped bass resource, allowing excessive harvest of the big 2001 and 2003 year classes, and arguably of the 2011 year class as well.  The stock has become overfished. 

How do we now keep fishing mortality low enough to protect the remaining 2011s, and the strong 2014 and 2015 year classes, long enough to rebuild the spawning stock biomass to its target level.

This is where the webinar starts getting a little fuzzy, and fails to tell listeners the entire truth.  And it’s not surprising, given that the moderator was Michael Waine, ASA’s Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director.  He is one of the people that helped push striped bass management off the rails in the first place, and it seems that getting it back on track isn’t high on his priority list.

Amendment 6 contains so-called “management triggers,” which require the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board to take clearly specified actions when certain events occur.  Most particularly, for purposes of this discussion, are management triggers 1, 2 and 4, which read

“1) 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.
2) 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 [in no more than 10 years]…
4) 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 target [in no more than 10 years].  [emphasis added]”
But even though the 2012 benchmark stock assessment, as updated in 2013, demonstrated that management trigger 4 had, in fact, been tripped, and that the Management Board must begin a 10-year rebuilding plan, nothing happened.  

The rebuilding plan was neither drafted nor put in place.  And Mr. Waine is a big part of the reason why.

At the time, he wasn’t working for the ASA, but instead for the ASMFC, where he served as the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for striped bass.  After the 2013 stock assessment update revealed that the striped bass female spawning stock biomass had fallen below the target, and that the fishing mortality rate had risen above the target, the Management Board began work to reduce fishing mortality back to the target (in response to another management trigger which required that it do so). 

“Management trigger 2 [he should have addressed trigger 4] in Amendment 6 says that you need to rebuild the [spawning stock biomass] back to its target over a specified timeline that should not exceed 10 years.  I think there is sort of a combination of things happening.  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 about 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 is to get back towards the target, but we can’t tell you exactly how quickly that will happen.”
Of course, we know now that the trend wasn’t “to get back towards the target,” but a further decline in the striped bass stock.  Yet listening to Mr. Waine moderate the ASA webinar, you get the distinct impression that he, maybe acting on his own belief, maybe reflecting the views of his employer, are willing to ignore the clear language of Amendment 6 once again, and delay the rebuilding of the striped bass stock.

Management trigger 2 should have already kicked in but, somehow, it hasn’t.  And Mr. Waine’s comments suggest that is OK with that.

He asked Dr. Armstrong

“How does the Management Board actually rebuild striped bass?  What can it control and what can’t they control?  Functionally, what is the Management Board doing when they take reductions in the striped bass [fishing mortality] level?”
Dr. Armstrong responded to the fishing mortality question, saying

There’s really only one way to rebuild the stock…The only thing we can control is fishing mortality…We can cut that down to a level that the projections show will rebuild.  And we’ve done that.  So we’ve taken criticism that the management plan says…we have to cut [fishing mortality] to the target [fishing mortality] in one year.  We did that…so we’re already starting rebuilding.  Cutting [fishing mortality] is the only way to rebuild…  [emphasis added]”
Dr. Armstrong went on to describe the monitoring that would take place now that the addendum is done.

But that was only a partial answer, addressing management trigger 1, reducing fishing mortality to the target level within one year if overfishing occurs.  The real rebuilding language is in management trigger 2, that requires the spawning stock biomass to be rebuilt within 10 years if it becomes overfished.  During the webinar, the 10-year rebuilding issue wasn’t addressed at all.

One might have hoped that Mr. Waine, as moderator, would have followed up on the 10-year rebuilding issue; he’s certainly familiar enough with the management plan, including Amendment 6, to know that the language was there.

But, instead, he left the rebuilding plan question unanswered, and said

“So this is not a set-it-and-forget-it scenario.  The Management Board will continue to monitor the progress of this fishery and will make adjustments as needed to address any changes that they see that they didn’t expect.  And I think that’s the way management has gone, and it sounds like that’s where it’s headed.”
As Mr. Waine knows perfectly well from his experience and actions at the ASMFC, reducing fishing mortality back to target, and ignoring the management plan’s clear requirement of a 10-year rebuilding plan, certainly is the way striped bass management “has gone,” although he probably shouldn’t really believe that the Management Board will “make adjustments as needed” to address unexpected changes. 

That sort of inaction is at least part of the reason why the stock was allowed to become overfished once again.  So doing the same thing again—failing to institute a 10-year rebuilding plan, as Amendment 6 requires—and trusting that the stock will rebuild at some unknown point in the future, possibly with Management Board intervention, comes dangerously close to Albert Einstein’s alleged remark that

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Striped bass need a clearly drafted rebuilding plan, that will recover the stock within ten years.  But that fact that Mr. Waine didn’t seem to push Dr. Armstrong on that issue, coupled with his role as the ASA’s Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director and his past actions at the ASMFC, suggest that at least some parts of the recreational industry might just be indifferent, if not opposed, to establishing a 10-year rebuilding deadline.

That wouldn’t only be too bad for the bass, and for striped bass fishermen, but for the fishing industry itself.

For as Dr. Armstrong noted later in the webinar, striped bass abundance drives angler effort.  When there are a lot of bass, he acknowledged,

“Fishing effort skyrockets…If the stock doubles, the fishing effort doesn’t double, it quadruples…It behooves everyone to keep this stock healthy.”
Everyone presumably includes the tackle manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers who belong to ASA. 

So let’s hope that omitting the 10-year rebuilding requirement from the webinar was just a coincidence, and not a reflection of ASA policy.

But hope is not a plan.  Let’s also make sure that we push the ASMFC to adopt such a rebuilding plan soon.  

Rebuilding striped bass “someday” is not good enough.  Those of us who lived through the last collapse want to see the stock fully rebuilt and healthy again, and not just in our lifetimes—we want to still be young and active enough to enjoy it when it happens.

Thursday, July 16, 2020


The New York Marine Resources Advisory Council held its July meeting last Tuesday.  Like many meetings these days, it was held as a webinar, not in person, but that didn’t prevent the Council from addressing a full agenda.

One of the issues on the agenda was commercial bluefish management.

In response to that assessment, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council reduced both the commercial and recreational harvest limits for the 2020 season.  That proved to be a double-whammy for the commercial sector, because not only was its harvest limit substantially lowered, but it could no longer fish on what managers wrongfully believed was unharvested recreational quota, that such managers could shift to the commercial side.

Thus, New York commercial fishermen found themselves with a 2020 bluefish quota that was roughly one-third of the size of the quota that they had in 2019.  Although New York representatives on the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Bluefish Advisory Panel didn’t think that the state’s commercial fishermen would fill even that small quota this year, that prediction turned out to be wrong.

Quirks in New York’s bluefish fishery make its quota very difficult to manage.  

One problem is that bluefish are a schooling fish, so that even when fish are generally scarce, as they are today, it’s common for them to be very abundant in a few locations for a period of time, even if they’re all but absent everywhere else.  In recent years, large numbers of bluefish have shown up off eastern Long Island in May, resulting in very high weekly landings.

As might be expected, those high early-season landings drive down the price that the fishermen get for their catch.  The Mid-Atlantic Council’s Bluefish Advisory Panel provides “fishery performance reports” each season, and it’s fairly typical to read such things as


So New York's commercial bluefish fishermen go out when bluefish are very abundant, land more fish than the market can easily handle, drive down prices and burn up quota without receiving a reasonable return for their efforts.  Then when prices rebound later in the summer, they find that they don’t have enough quota left to fill the demand.

But from what representatives of the Department of Environmental Conservation said at the Advisory Council meeting this week, it did happen again this year, with New York commercial fishermen exceeding their May-June quota so badly—even though it was bolstered by a rollover of uncaught fish from the January-April period, and the transfer of 100,000 pounds of quota from other states to New York—that it is very unlikely that the commercial bluefish season can remain open throughout the summer unless the trip limit is reduced from 500 pounds to something far lower—perhaps something in the 150 pounds per trip range.

Cutting the trip limit that way might keep the season open, but it would undoubtedly lead to another problem—dead discards.  When a school of bluefish passes by, gill nets tend to entangle large numbers at one time, and those captured fish quickly die.  If the trip limit is lowered from 500 to 150 pounds, there is a very good chance that hundreds of pounds of bluefish will be returned, dead, to the sea every time a fisherman hauls back his gear.

And, because of a quirk in the bluefish management plan, those discarded fish aren’t accounted for.  

The bluefish stock assessment assumes that there are no commercial deaddiscards, and neither the Mid-Atlantic Council nor the Atlantic States MarineFisheries Commission deducts any allowance for dead discards from thecommercial catch limit when calculating how many bluefish may be legallylanded.  Thus, the stock assessment understates bluefish mortality by not considering dead discards, annual fishing mortality is underestimated, and commercial fishermen, unlike their recreational counterparts, are not held accountable in any way for the dead bluefish that they dump over the side.

New York’s fishery managers are thus forced into a lose-lose situation, where they can either keep the trip limit high, and shut down the fishery for weeks before the next quota period begins, or they can cut the trip limit significantly, knowing that if they do so, it will lead to a substantial level of unaccounted-for dead discards, which is not a prudent way to manage an overfished stock.

One might think that the fishermen themselves would try to alleviate the problem by setting less gear for shorter soak times in an effort to avoid flooding the market, but that’s not how the bluefish fishery works.

The bluefish fishery in New York, and in most other states, is also what’s known as a “derby” fishery, in which commercial fishermen have an overall state quota, and vie with each other to bring as many fish as possible back to the dock, until the quota for that current period, and/or for the year, has been exhausted.  

Derby fisheries invoke the Tragedy of the Commons, in which fishermen who try to rationally and sustainably manage their landings find themselves at a real disadvantage, and their efforts to fish rationally wasted, when less prudent fishermen rush out to land as large a share of the quota as possible, as quickly as they can.

Applying that problem to New York’s spring bluefish fishery, it is very likely that most fishermen would rather not set a lot of gear, flood the market with bluefish, and drive the price down to unprofitable levels.  But the unfortunate truth is that in a derby fishery, the fishermen who get out when the season opens and manage to be the first to get the fish back to the dock will get a reasonable price for their catch, with that price declining as more fish enter the stream of commerce.

At that point, fishermen could refrain from fishing for a few days, let the price for bluefish recover, and then go back out and set just enough gear to make a profitable catch, without flooding the market and crashing the price once again.  And some fishermen do stop fishing when the price drops too much.  However, unless everyone agrees to stop fishing until the price bounces back, and unless everyone agrees on a rational plan to prevent new catches of bluefish from flooding—which is a virtual impossibility to accomplish—such restraint only places prudent fishermen at a disadvantage, as imprudent fishermen continue to fish, continue to depress the market price, and continue to use up quota, so that when the price does reach a point where the fishermen can make decent money, there isn’t enough quota left to support their efforts.

Thus, derby fisheries lead to the irrational situation where fishermen seek to catch as much fish as they can, as quickly as they can, even if doing so drives down the price and the resultant profitablility, because if they don’t do so, there won’t be any quota left to catch and to profit from when the market price improves.

That situation doesn’t just apply to New York bluefish; it’s endemic in many, if not most, derby-type fisheries, both in the United States and around the world.

There is a rational answer to it, but it’s an answer that’s not at all popular among the region’s commercial fishermen:  catch shares.

Under a catch share system, each vessel is assigned a percentage share of the overall commercial quota (catch shares could also make sense in some for-hire fisheries, too, but that’s a discussion for a different time), that the vessel may harvest at any time during the year.  There is no need to rush out at the beginning of the season to load up on fish and try to get them back at the dock; there is no need to keep fishing should the price fall, just to be sure that you don’t get shut out when the quota is exhausted.

Instead, each vessel can tailor its landings to its particular circumstances, and the needs of the markets that it serves.

Perhaps one fisherman wants to land a big part of his or her quota in May, getting it landed and allowing the fisherman to move on to other species.  Under a catch share program, that fisherman may do so.

Or maybe a fisherman makes an arrangement with a market to supply it with a modest, but steady supply of fresh bluefish throughout the year, perhaps at a pre-negotiated price.  Under a catch share program, that fisherman would know that there would always be quota available to support such arrangement.

Or maybe a vessel has quota that isn’t always used.  

The trip limit for New York’s January-April period is 5,000 pounds, because bluefish aren’t always caught at that time of year, but when they are, it’s usually by a trawler that lands thousands of pounds at a time.  This year, that didn’t happen, and only about 1,600 pounds was landed for the entire 4-month period.  Under a catch share system, a vessel has the option of leasing any unneeded quota to another vessel that is able to use it later in the fishing year.

Catch share programs give fishermen more flexibility as to how and when they will fish.  They generally eliminate the extreme price swings inherent in a derby fishery, and allow fishermen to align landings with market demand.  Because fishermen must exit the fishery for the rest of they year once they catch all of their assigned quota (unless they lease more), they are an effective way to avoid overfishing.  And because the amount of fish each fisherman/vessel may land increases if the biomass and annual catch limit increases, and decreases if a stock declines, catch shares give fisherman an incentive to be good stewards of the fish that they pursue.

Even so, catch shares are often reviled by fishermen, who believe that they keep them out of fisheries that they’d like to enter, and prevent them from growing their business simply by catching more fish. Yet in just about every other industry one can imagine, people expect to invest capital in order to expand, and it’s hard to understand why such investment, through the lease or purchase of quota, shouldn’t apply to fishermen, too.

There is also a worry that catch shares result in small operators leasing or selling their quota and leaving the fishery, leaving a fishery largely composed of the biggest fishing businesses.  There’s no doubt that most catch share fisheries have witnessed such trend.  But those who exited such fisheries have done so voluntarily, believing that it made more financial sense to lease or sell out than to continue to fish on too small of a quota; no one was forced to leave.  Plus, those who were awarded small quotas couldn’t have been landing many fish, or at least, not legally landing many fish, before catch shares were initiated, or their quota would have been higher.

Anyway, we’ve seen consolidation in just about every other industry, from drug stores to lawyers to accounting firms.  It’s difficult to argue that fishermen, for some reason, ought to be immune.

Catch shares are both effective and controversial.  Setting up a catch share system in the mid-Atlantic, or in any mid-Atlantic state, would require a serious investment of time and money.

But the expense and trouble could be worthwhile.  Once up and running, a catch share system would lead to more effective management of species such as bluefish, while derby fisheries will continue to provide neither economic efficiency nor sufficient quota for all.