Sunday, July 19, 2020
ASA STRIPED BASS WEBINAR OMITS KEY REBUILDING ISSUE
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.
This year, because of COVID-19, the live show was cancelled, and replaced with an on-line event. Included in that event were a series of political/educational webinars, somewhat euphemistically called the “Conservation Seminar Series,” which were sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Center for Sportfishing Policy and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.
If the Modern Fish Act debate taught us anything, it’s thatwhen you see that trio working together, particularly if they’re working alongsidethe ASA, don't expect to see much “conservation” as the dictionary defines it—although you might see them "conserving" industry profits in the short term at theexpense of healthy fish stocks in the future.
That certainly seemed to be the case with the webinar addressing striped bass recovery.
Titled “Rebuilding the Iconic Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery,” the webinar featured two well-known and sincerely conservation-minded speakers, Dr. Michael Armstrong, Assistant Director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the former Chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, and Kevin Blinkoff, Executive Editor of On the Water Magazine, a publication that is widely read by northeastern striped bass fishermen.
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.
It all begins with Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which was adopted in February 2003.
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).
But when the issue of rebuilding came up at the August 2014 Management Board meeting, it turns out that Mr. Waine didn’t think that, when Amendment 6 said that “the management plan must adjust the striped bass management program” to rebuild the biomass within 10 years, anyone needed to take it seriously. Instead, he told the Management Board that
“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.
Now, though, the stakes are higher, as the spawning stock biomass isn’t merely below target, but below threshold. The latest benchmark stock assessment found that the striped bass stock is now overfished.
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.
After all, in 2014, the Chesapeake Bay states were required to adopt management measures that would reduce their fishing mortality by 20.5 percent compared to 2012, and when the data showed that such measures instead allowed recreational landings in the Chesapeake—mostly in Maryland—to increase by more than 50 percent—something that everyone should hope qualified as a change that the Management Board didn’t expect—the Management Board responded by…doing nothing to fix it at all, and allowing such excessive harvest to continue for at least another five years.
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.