Thursday, April 29, 2021


Last Sunday, I described how stakeholder comments received by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission overwhelmingly supported strong, decisive action to conserve and rebuild the striped bass stock.  Today, I’m pleased to say that the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Advisory Panel, made up of stakeholders from the angling, for-hire, and commercial striped bass sectors, has taken a similar position on the proposed Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.

The Advisory Panel’s support for sound striped bass conservation took a number of different forms, and touched on many of the issues included in the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  But its single, most important action was recommending that Issue 2, which addressed biological reference points, be removed from further consideration in the Amendment 7 process.

If that happens, it would be a very big deal.  It would also represent a very big setback to the states of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, which see Amendment 7 as their best, and perhaps their only, chance to put more dead striped bass on the docks of their respective states.

To understand just how big a win maintaining the current reference points in Amendment 7 might be, it’s worth taking a look at the history of the issue.

Maryland’s Michael Luisi was probably the earliest and most aggressive proponent of moving forward with a new amendment, in order to permit a bigger kill.  

Even back in 2016, before a new amendment was even considered, his arguments began.  After a stock assessment update found that the 2015 fishing mortality rate was 0.16, slightly below but, because of the level of uncertainty inherent in the estimate, statistically indistinguishable from the target fishing mortality rate of 0.18, Luisi tried to convince the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board to relax regulations in order to squeeze a few more dead fish out of the population.

And that was after the assessment update also revealed that anglers in the Chesapeake Bay—particularly in Maryland--not only failed to make their required 20.5% reduction in fishing mortality, but actually increased their fishing mortality by more than 50%.

Capt. John McMurray, New York’s legislative proxy, called out Luisi’s hypocritical position, saying

“I’m trying to figure out what’s going on here.  Harvest was up almost 55 percent in the Bay states, where it was supposed to be decreased by 20.5 percent.  I think, during your presentation, recreational fishing effort was up 50 percent.  Coastal states on the other hand went down to one fish, and our decrease was 47 percent, I think.

“Now we’re considering a request from the states that overfished to do an analysis so they could catch more fish.  It doesn’t make sense here.  Nobody is discussing well, maybe we should look at the regulations that they had in place that allowed them to go 54 percent over.  Instead we’re considering this.  I don’t really understand how the conversation even got here.  [emphasis added]”

Capt. McMurray’s comment didn’t go over well with the Chesapeake Bay states; one representative was quick to explain that the fishing mortality target was a coast-wide goal, making it fine for Chesapeake Bay anglers to kill more bass than the management plan provided for, so long as coastal states made greater sacrifices than the plan required to offset the Chesapeake landings.

Not surprisingly, John Clark, a Delaware fisheries manager who consistently advocates for a bigger kill, was quick to support Luisi’s attempt to increase landings.  However, Michael Armstrong, a manager from Massachusetts, disagreed.

“I very much appreciate what’s going on in the Bay, although I look at the data, and I really want to talk more to you guys about it.  I see and I hear the charter guys talking.  But I see you catching the same number of fish that you did last year.  The harvest is the same.  The number of caught and release are more.  I’m struggling to see the difficulty that has created.

“I’m very open to the explanation.  What really worries me, it’s a fool’s errand to be messing around in the hundredths spot on an assessment.  We’re kidding ourselves if we think there is a difference between 0.16 and 0.18… [emphasis added]”

Trying to fine-tune regulations closely enough to address a 0.02 difference in the fishing mortality rate might have been a fool’s errand, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t people willing to look into the possibility.  Adam Nowalsky, New Jersey’s legislative proxy, was one of them  He said,

“…what initiated this action [to reduce fishing mortality] a short time ago was a very small tick in F above the F threshold [sic].  That very small tick above meant something…

“But that small tick was enough for us to take significant management action.  What is being suggested today is that a tick under the F target now, just take a look at what that could potentially mean…”

So like vultures circling above the high plains, keeping their eyes on a sick and staggering cow, the representatives of Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey focused on the insignificant 0.02 difference between 2015 fishing mortality and the target mortality rate, hoping for an opportunity to feed.

The possibility of reducing the female spawning stock biomass target, and so of increasing fishing mortality, offered a chance not just to feed on a single carcass, but to glut themselves on an entire herd.  It was an opportunity that they couldn’t resist.

The first real effort to do so came in October 2017, well before Amendment 7 was ever proposed.  Instead, the effort came in connection with the 2018 benchmark stock assessment, and the possibility of using a lower spawning stock biomass target in the assessment process.  Maryland’s Luisi drove the initiative, saying

“…I’ve always been one that has thought that the current targets that are set for spawning stock biomass, or set to a point where they’re unachievable.  They may be achievable, but we’re unable to maintain them. 

“It sets a false expectation for fishermen along the coast…”

As things turned out, the 2018 benchmark stock assessment not only found that the striped bass stock was both overfished and experiencing overfishing; it also found that the model used in the assessment could not calculate biological reference points.  Thus, the existing “empirical” spawning stock biomass reference points, based on 1995 abundance or, in the alternative, some other, arbitrarily selected reference point such as 1993 abundance--which would lower the biomass target--would have to be used. 

At that point, conversation turned to initiating a new Amendment 7, which might—or might not—adopt a lower biomass target.  Again, Luisi tried to convince the Management Board to follow his lead, saying

“Five years [after developing the last addendum to the management plan], it doesn’t seem as if what we did a whole lot of good as far as recovering the stock.  I feel as if we’re in a different place and time right now.  Amendment 6 was developed back in the time period when we had a super abundance of stripers in the ocean.  We no longer have that based on this assessment.”

Instead of attempting to restore that sort of striped bass abundance, Luisi argued that

“I would be supportive of a more comprehensive look at all of the elements that are in Amendment 6 for potential change, which would be goals and objectives, trigger mechanisms, reference points, time periods.  All of those elements, I think we need to reconsider them.  You know we did a survey a year or two ago; I don’t remember when that was.  But there was a clear indication that the Board was kind of split; as far as do we want to have a super abundance of large striped bass in the ocean, or do we want to have harvest a part of that as well?”

At the same meeting, after the findings of the benchmark assessment were released, Doug Grout, a fishery manager from New Hampshire, made a motion that tasked the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee with providing an example of management measures that might end overfishing and return fishing mortality to the target level.  John Clark of Delaware, one of Luisi’s most dependable allies, didn’t care for that idea.

“I’m opposed to this.  I think we know what this will turn out.  It’s going to be drastic, it’s going to be alarming, and it’s really going to create expectations in the public that things are so terrible that we have to take drastic action now…This is the time to start an amendment process; where we rethink our management options, we look at different reference points.  [emphasis added]”

That’s a pretty remarkable statement.  

Clark is admitting that “drastic action” would be needed to reduce fishing mortality to the target level, but despite the need, he doesn’t want to take such action “now.”  

He doesn’t want the public to believe that the state of the striped bass stock is “terrible” (although it’s probably worth noting that earlier this week, at a striped bass webinar hosted by Rutgers University, Emilie Franke, ASMFC’s current fisheries management plan coordinator, and Dr. Katie Drew, the Team Lead for the striped bass stock assessment, actually used the word “terrible” to describe the current state of the striped bass).

Instead of taking the action needed to end overfishing and rebuild the stock, Clark’s proposed solution was to move the goal posts, and adopt new reference points that wouldn’t lead to a greater abundance of bass, but would instead deem the current, depleted population to be the new normal and without need of more restrictive management.

It looked like bass were headed for a bad place, particularly after a “Work Group” assembled by the Management Board, which included Luisi, issued a report which, despite the stock’s overfished status, began with the line that

“In the post moratorium era (ending 1990), the management of Atlantic Striped Bass has largely been a story of success,”

reported that

“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,”

and decided that

“management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency,”

rather than maintaining a healthy and fully rebuilt striped bass stock, ought to be the “themes" of the new amendment.

Then things looked a little worse when the resultant Public Information Document contained a statement that

“the current reference points may be unobtainable given current objectives for fishery performance,”

even though there was no support for that statement in the benchmark stock assessment.  When Capt. McMurray objected to that inclusion, Clark responded that

“Yes, this was Delaware made the request.  It is pretty widely accepted that the stock was at an all-time high level during the early 2000s.  This led to the huge changes in other fisheries within Delaware Bay.  As was pointed out earlier in the public comments by Dr. Kahn, the Delaware went from not producing striped bass to being a striped bass production dynamo, and responsible for upwards of 20 percent of the coastal stock, and yet we have a huge resident population now in the Bay.

“As I said, this was still not hitting the [spawning stock biomass] target.  You can talk to anybody that saw the Bay during those years.  I just think these, and not just me, but I think that it’s pretty well accepted in our area that to reach some of these target levels, would just mean that there would be nothing in Delaware Bay except for striped bass, and they would be emaciated at that, because the population would have to be so high.  [emphasis added]”

There was plenty wrong with that statement.  Calling striped bass abundance in the early 2000s “an all-time high level” was fairly audacious, given that the striped bass have been running the coast since shortly after the retreat of the last glacier, and it’s not too unlikely that they reached higher levels of abundance somewhere along the way; it’s not even clear that they weren’t at similar levels of abundance at some point between 1950 and the early 1970s.  So “all-time” was clearly hyperbole.

And the Delaware estuary was known to produce striped bass for much of the past; while industrial development did lead to hypoxia, which interrupted such production, today’s striped bass abundance in the Delaware represents a return to the long-term norm, not something new.  

Finally, Clark fails to explain how the Delaware’s stripers avoided eating themselves out of house and home for most of the past 15,000 years, before Europeans came from across the sea maybe four centuries ago, to help keep their population in check and protect the other residents of Delaware Bay.

The fact that no one on the Management Board joined Capt. McMurray to challenge such points didn’t bode well for the bass.

But then the public got their chance to speak, and it turned out that they weren’t buying Clark’s fable.  And now, the Advisory Panel, heeding the public, made it clear that it wasn’t buying the story, either. 

While it recognized that rebuilding the stock won’t be a cakewalk, and

“noted the importance of communicating to the public the recognition that the [spawning stock biomass] target may be difficult to attain but it is the target we want to strive for in rebuilding the stock,”

it still advised against any change to the reference points.

While that was its most significant recommendation, it made many other conservation-oriented suggestions.  With respect to the goal and objectives of the management plan, its recommendations included advice that

“A stricter objective to address declining stock trends could be considered since the stock has been declining to its current state under the existing objectives,”


“The existing objective that addresses state flexibility may need to be modified or addressed in some way given the public’s concerns about conservation equivalency.”

The advisors also recommended that any change in the management triggers addressing excessive fishing mortality or a falling spawning stock biomass be removed from further consideration, along with any consideration of extending the 10-year rebuilding deadline, and

“recognized commenters at public hearings expressed concerns that the Board did not respond quickly enough to the management triggers that initiate a rebuilding plan.”

The Panel also recommended that the Management Board take a long, hard look at the use of conservation equivalency when managing striped bass, to assure that the process is not abused and that it is supported by adequate data.

Finally, the Advisory Panel looked at an issue that has been largely ignored in recent discussions, the need to protect the large 2015 year class, which may offer managers their last, best opportunity to reverse the decline in the striped bass stock.  The 2015s will be entering the lower end of the 28 to 35-inch slot limit this season, and so will be the focus of every angler who wants to keep a striped bass.  With respect to keep[ing them alive in sufficient numbers to make a difference, the Advisory Panel said

“This is critically important to rebuild the stock.  The 2015 year class is coming into the slot and the slot needs to be changed or moved to a minimum size limit to protect this year class.  There should be discussion about measures to protect this year class.  Regarding slot limits, one [Advisory Panel] member noted there needs to be discussion about potential increased discard mortality associated with using a slot limit to protect a year class.”

Unfortunately, with seasons already underway up and down the coast, it’s probably impossible to act on that recommendation in time to protect the 2015s from being hit hard in 2021, and probably in 2022 as well.  

This is an issue that the Management Board should have considered two years ago, before jumping into the slot limit feet-first, without thoroughly examining it implications for rebuilding (the right thing to do would have been adopting a 35-inch minimum size, and then, perhaps in 2024 or 2025, when the 2015s were approaching that length, switch to the current slot so that the 2015s again escaped being targeted, and could maximize their contribution to the spawning stock; unfortunately, that sort of thinking is probably alien to the Management Board).

There is no question that the Advisory Panel’s contribution to the debate was significant.  We now have two different sets of voices—the general population of stakeholders, and the presumably better-informed members of the Panel—arriving at the same conclusion:  It’s time for the Management Board to get down to its primary duty of restoring and conserving the striped bass stock, and managing the stock for long-term abundance.

If the Management Board doesn’t heed those voices, it will be very clear that it cares about no one’s agenda except its own.





Sunday, April 25, 2021


 On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 5, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will meet to decide on its next steps toward the development of the proposed Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.

Last week, in anticipation of that meeting, the ASMFC published a summary of all of the public comment received during the period that ended April 9.  ASMFC staff did an extremely good job of summarizing and objectively analyzing such comments; a quick perusal of those comments indicates that an overwhelming majority of the public supports strong striped bass conservation measures, and are far more interested in a healthy bass stock than they are in “flexibility” or “management stability.”

In all, the ASMFC received 3,063 comments, which included 2,397 that constituted some sort of form letter, 616 written by individual stakeholders, and 50 submitted by various recreational angling, fishing industry, and conservation organizations. 

In that regard, it was particularly heartening to see mainstream conservation organizations, which historically have not been heavily engaged in striped bass management issues, supporting striped bass conservation this time around.  So I’d like to recognize, and personally thank, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which stated that

“the recent benchmark stock assessment paints a concerning picture for the current status of the striped bass population with the stock being both overfished and currently experiencing overfishing.  The current stock status is both a symptom of recent management choices as well as a call to action,”

and included, among its many recommendations, that

“Considering the long history of excess mortality, ASMFC should focus on ensuring fishing mortality is reduced to appropriate levels in order to allow the age structure of the population to expand;”

The Nature Conservancy, which observed that

“Two decades ago, striped bass management was considered a national success story.  Managers and stakeholders widely celebrated the successful rebuilding of the striped bass population, and in the years that followed the striped bass fishery took its place as the premier inshore sport fishery in many East coast states.

“Unfortunately, the dedication and commitment it took to rebuild the striped bass population were not maintained.  Consequently, the striped bass population and the quality of the fisheries it supports have been declining.  The fact that problems with this fishery have manifested for over a decade, that measures to effectively curtail fishing mortality were not taken much sooner, that a rebuilding plan of ten years or less has not yet been adopted, and that state conservation equivalency provisions have repeatedly been used in ways that appear counter to what is needed to assess and achieve coast-wide fishing mortality and biomass goals have collectively been eroding stakeholder confidence in the ability of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to accomplish the intended long-term objectives for striped bass, and several of the other fisheries managed by the Commission;”

and Wild Oceans which, among other things, asserted that

“When the 2019 Atlantic striped bass stock assessment concluded that striped bass are once again overfished, we urged the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board to initiate a rebuilding program that does not exceed 10 years, as required by Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (ISFMP).  It has been nearly two years since the release of the stock assessment, and the Board has yet to take up the issue of developing a rebuilding plan.  The Board’s most pressing priority should be restoring striped bass stocks to healthy levels.  A rebuilding plan that will restore striped bass to the target biomass by 2029 should either be incorporated in Amendment 7 or initiated through an addendum action at the spring 2021 meeting.”

It’s heartening to have those voices on our side of the issue.

And I’m very comfortable saying “our” side, as the great majority of stakeholders who commented supported strong conservation measures.

For example, when it came to Question 1, whether the current goal and objectives ought to be changed, out of 1,698 written comments addressing the issue, 1,676 (98.7%) stated that such goals and objectives should not be amended.  That broke down further into 119 out of 130 (91.5%) of individuals, 1,530 out of 1,534 (99.7%) of the form letters, and 27 out of 34 (79%) of the organizations that commented on the issue.

Another item worth noting is that, out of the 119 individuals who commented on the goal and objectives, all 119—fully 100%--stated that bass should be managed for abundance, and not for yield. 

With respect to the issue, ASMFC staff noted that

“Many comments noted the goals and objectives are sound but the problem is the Board has not adhered to the goal and objectives

“A notable amount of comments stated striped bass should be managed for abundance rather than managing for harvest or yield…Some individuals and form letters noted that the management themes, especially flexibility and management stability, should not override the goals and objectives of the [fishery management plan].

“Regarding the timing of Amendment 7, some commenters noted concern about developing a new amendment before a rebuilding plan is put in place to address the overfished stock and before there is information available on the effectiveness of Addendum VI measures put in place to reduce fishing mortality.  [emphasis added]”

Given the comments on the goals and objectives, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that stakeholder sentiment on changing the biological reference points was even more overwhelming, with 2,668 out of 2,678 (99.6%) comments on the issue supporting the status quo.  Again, the sentiment was equally distributed across all categories of comment, including 237 out of 243 (97.5%) of individuals, 2,389 out of 2,389 (100%) of form letters, and 42 out of 46 (91.3%) of organizations.

On this issue, ASMFC staff noted that

“An overwhelming majority support maintaining 1995 as an appropriate reference year and basis for the [biological reference points].  Many comments noted concerns that changes to the [biological reference points] were being considered and commenters noted that not achieving the target thus far is not a reason to change the [biological reference points]…”

The biological reference points issue received the most comments of any of the issues considered in the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  That being the case, it’s somewhat surprising that far fewer stakeholders commented on the triggers for management action and the maximum time to rebuild the striped bass stock, because without meaningful triggers and prompt rebuilding, the biological reference points lose a lot of their meaning.

Still, the response to those issues is consistent with the earlier responses.

Out of the 407 comments on management triggers, 209 (51.4%) supported maintaining the existing triggers, while 185 (45.5%) support the current spawning stock biomass and fishing mortality triggers, but would like to see a more effective trigger to address low recruitment.  Again, such preference extended across all comment categories, with support for either all triggers or just the biomass and fishing mortality triggers expressed by 132 of 136 individuals (97.1%), 242 of 242 form letters (100%), and 20 out of 29 organizations (69%).

With respect to the 10-year rebuilding period, none of the 519 comments received on the issue suggested that rebuilding should be extended beyond 10 years, although there were 32 comments that 10 years was too long.

So it’s pretty clear that virtually no one wants striped bass to be managed any less conservatively than they are today.  ASMFC staff observed that

“Many comments noted concern that there is not yet a rebuilding plan in place to address the current overfished status of the stock.  Commenters noted the Board should adhere to this rebuilding requirement as specified in Amendment 6 and should act quickly to implement a rebuilding plan to address the overfished status tock [sic] by 2029 (10 years after the last benchmark stock assessment results were adopted for management use).  Many commenters expressed a need for urgency to implement a rebuilding plan and take action in response to triggers more quickly.”

The goals and objectives, biological reference points, management triggers and rebuilding timeline represent the heart of the management plan, as they define a healthy stock and the management actions that should be followed to get there.  But the Public Information Document also addressed some other issues that were more about providing the Management Board with some guidance about how to rebuild and maintain a sustainable stock than about what such a stock should look like.

The first of those issues was the possibility of a regional management approach.  On the whole, stakeholders didn’t like the idea, largely because there wasn’t enough peer-reviewed science available to support it.  Out of 806 comments on regional management, 770 (95.5%) said that regional management was a bad idea.

It’s not clear how many comments were received on the next procedural issue, conservation equivalency, a doctrine that allows states to adopt regulations different from the management measures adopted by the Management Board, so long as such measures are calculated to have the same conservation impact. 

The total number of comments on the issue listed by ASMFC staff actually exceeds the number of comments made on the entire PID, which can be attributed to the fact that the comments aren’t mutually exclusive; a commenter can, for example, take the position that conservation equivalency should only be employed if the stock is not overfished, and also take the position that a state should be held accountable if its conservation equivalency measures fail to adequately constrain recreational landings.

But the one thing that can be said with complete certainty is that conservation equivalency is at best viewed with suspicion, and at worst is disliked by many stakeholders.  That is made very clear in the ASMFC staff’s report, which reveals that just 35 commenters supported retaining conservation equivalency as a part of the management plan, while more than seventeen times that number—612 individuals and organizations—believe that it should be completely removed.  Of those with more nuanced opinions, 1,527 believe that conservation equivalency should only be used if the stock is not overfished or experiencing overfishing, while 1,463 commenters noted that if conservation equivalency is employed by any state, such state should be held accountable if its supposedly “equivalent” measures don’t adequately constrain landings.

Such strong support for accountability when conservation equivalency is used stands in stark contrast to the response to the question of whether anglers as a whole should be held accountable; only 294 comments were received on that question, and of those comments, only 19 (6%) felt that including recreational accountability language in Amendment 7 would be a good idea.  Of those, the majority, 180 comments (62%) felt that the issue was “too complex” to be a part of the Amendment 7 process, while 38 commenters (12.9%) were completely opposed to the concept of angler accountability.

When all of the numbers were crunched and all of the comments analyzed, it became clear that stakeholders very strongly support striped bass conservation, and oppose compromising the long-term health of the stock in order to increase landings.  

I’ve been involved with striped bass conservation since the mid-1970s—since before the stock collapsed—and in the nearly 50 years that have passed, I have never seen such lopsided support for conservation measures.

Just look at those numbers again:  98.7% of the comments support the current goals and objectives of the striped bass management plan, with 99.6% supporting the current biological reference points.  96.9% support the current spawning stock biomass and fishing mortality management triggers; `100% of commenters believe that the stock should be rebuilt in no more than 10 years, with some believing that rebuilding should occur sooner.  95.5% of the comments opposed regional management, and just about no one liked the way conservation equivalency is currently being utilized to manage striped bass.

If public sentiment governed the Management Board’s actions, it probably would stop work on Amendment 7 right now, and merely initiate a new addendum to limit the use of conservation equivalency in the striped bass management program.

Unfortunately, striped bass management is governed not by public sentiment, or by science, or by any set legal standard, but by the unfettered discretion of the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, and there is no guarantee that the Management Board will heed what the public thinks about striped bass management.

It has certainly not adhered to public preferences in the past.

John Papciak, an angler who fishes out of Montauk, New York, put it this way:

“I can’t help thinking back to the ASMFC call of October 30, 2019 when our public feedback was discussed.  I remember New York’s James Gilmore commenting on how public input clearly showed support ‘up and down the coast’ for a larger striped bass size (1@35) over all the other management options being offered.  The public acknowledged that a larger size worked, and the fishery recovered [after the collapse of the late 1900s].  Gilmore’s comments came just before the Commissioners went ahead with their own agenda anyway, and pushed through something entirely different, a slot size.  There is a long-standing pattern here, of collecting such public input—and then disregarding it…

“As I see it, the problem goes way beyond providing input to a specific document here.  ASMFC is facing a vote of no-confidence from the public.

“It is understood ASMFC is not legally bound to the management and legal standards that one might expect within the Regional Fishery Management Councils.  There appears to be little appetite to bring this body up to that type of standard.  Instead, we see Commissioners regularly looking to exploit loopholes in management plans (in the name of “flexibility”), and ignoring stock assessments.  This only delays or defers rebuilding plans.  A strong case can be made that the Commission should cease moving forward with any new Management Plans.  Instead, it should be completely restructured to work more like a Council, or be absorbed by a Council in the name of regulatory streamlining.

“The Public Information Document (PID) for Amendment 7 is a hastily prepared paper which appears to draw attention away from significant administrative failures with the execution of the current Striped Bass Management Plan.  The stock is now overfished, yet there are no ‘Lessons Learned’ being shared here.  There are no credible studies to guide the public in understanding any broad new set of objectives.  The reader is left wondering the motivation behind curious opening sentences (“the status and understanding of the striped bass stock and fishery has changed considerably which raises concerns that the current management program no longer reflects current fishery needs and priorities”).  It is highly unlikely that the final product of this Amendment 7 proposal, as written, could ever drive the rebuilding of a stock that nearly everyone agrees is a shadow of its former self.”

It’s fair to say that, at this point, the Management Board, if not the entire ASMFC, is on trial.

Stakeholders have made it abundantly clear that they want the striped bass stock to be rebuilt as soon as possible—and in any event, within no more than ten years—and managed conservatively, with the emphasis on abundance, not yield, once the stock is restored.

There is no excuse for the Management Board not to yield to the overwhelming public sentiment on this matter.

Thus, if the Management Board moves forward with a draft Amendment 7 that seeks to materially alter the goal and objectives of the management plan, or that seeks to adopt new biological reference points, or that would give the Management Board the “flexibility” to ignore management triggers, or that drags out rebuilding beyond ten years, then it will be manifestly clear that the Management Board does not even pretend to represent the public interest, and instead is representing only itself.

Should that prove to be the case, the Management Board should understand that the public will then feel obligated to protect its own interests, and will seek to limit the Board’s freedom to act in a way that continues to put the striped bass stock at risk.     


NOTE:  In the original version of this blog, I said that my comments were not included in the package prepared for the Management Board.  I was in error; the comments were, in fact, in the package.  My thanks to ASMFC staff, who (unlike some on the Management Board) are working hard trying to do things right.

Thursday, April 22, 2021


Back in December 2019, I expressed real concern that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted recreational management measures for scup and black sea bass that weren’t strict enough to constrain landings to the recreational harvest limit, and might even violate provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

A month earlier, I expressed similar concerns that the Council was not being sufficiently risk averse when it set recreational management measures for the overfished bluefish stock.

Then, just this January, I wrote about how the Mid-Atlantic Council may have compounded those errors when it adopted 2021 recreational management measures for bluefish, summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass that were effectively identical to those it had adopted for 2020, despite the 2020 measures’ flaws, and despite the fact that COVID-19’s impacts on both recreational catch and landings data and on fishery-independent surveys used to evaluate the health of fish stocks meant that managers had little or no information on whether anglers stayed within their harvest limits last season.

2020 recreational catch and landings estimates were released last week, and it appears that all of those concerns were justified. 

It now appears that, in 2020, anglers exceeded the recreational harvest limit for all four Council-managed species, with landings ranging from 130 percent of the harvest limit for summer flounder to nearly 200 percent in the case of scup.   

So what will the National Marine Fisheries Service do now?

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council has already sent its status quo management recommendation to NMFS for review and, hopefully (from the Council’s point of view), approval.  Now, it appears that anglers have substantially overfished the recreational harvest limit for all four species, and there is a real question as to whether NMFS will—or even, pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens, whether NMFS may—approve the Council’s recommendations.

In the case of summer flounder, NMFS was ready to approve the Council’s actions.  On April 6, it issued a proposed rule that would do so, and justified such proposal by saying

“Preliminary data suggest that effort in 2020 was similar to 2019 effort.  In fishing year 2019, recreational summer flounder landings exceeded the [recreational harvest limit] by only 1 percent.  The 2021 RHL (8.32 million lb, 2,774 [metric tons]) is 8 percent higher than the 2019 and 2020 RHLs.”

Under such circumstances, status quo regulations would make sense.

Unfortunately for NMFS, and for the summer flounder, we now know that 2020 landings were significantly higher than landings in 2019.  At slightly over 10 million pounds, they exceeded the 2020 RHL not by a mere 1 percent, as in 2019, but by a full 30 percent; even though anglers will see a higher RHL this season, if 2021 landings match those of last year, recreational fishermen will still exceed the RHL by over 20 percent.

That’s not a trivial number.  It could spur NMFS to act.

Scup present a more benign set of facts. 

NMFS and the Council have long considered scup to primarily be a commercial fish; the allocation is strongly skewed toward the commercial sector, granting anglers only 22 percent of the overall catch.  While such a lopsided split might have reflected reality during the years 1988-1992, when the scup allocation was set, because scup abundance was so low that the fish didn’t draw too much recreational attention, it doesn’t reflect today’s conditions, when a thriving scup population and limited market demand has created a situation in which commercial fishermen are allowed to catch more fish than they can sell, while anglers want to take home far more fish than they are allowed.

Thus, today we see anglers regularly exceeding their harvest limit, while commercial fishermen never catch their entire quota.

That situation provides some slack managers might work with.  Recreational landings that exceed the RHL don’t necessarily harm either the commercial sector or the scup stock, although they do violate the provisions of the management plan. 

For example, in 2019, the commercial scup fishery was awarded a 23.98 million pound quota, but only landed 13.78 million pounds of fish, while the RHL of 7.37 million pounds was not only exceeded, but nearly doubled, as anglers caught 12.942 million pounds of scup during that year.  Yet, when the two sectors’ allocations and catch are combined, we find that, despite the big recreational overage, the total catch of 28.30 million pounds was only about 90 percent of the overall allocation.

The 2019 recreational overage did no harm.

For 2020 and 2021, the Acceptable Biological Catch for scup was set at 33.22 million pounds.  Commercial landings data for 2020 have not yet been finalized, but assuming that they are about the same as they were in 2019—which is a pretty good assumption, as commercial landings have remained relatively constant since at least 2015—the fact that anglers nearly doubled their RHL again in 2020 does not bode ill for the stock.

Thus, NMFS would do no harm if it approved status quo regulations for 2021, so long as the commercial landings do not increase.

But things are very different when it comes to bluefish and black sea bass.

In the case of black sea bass, the Overfishing Limit for both 2020 and 2021 is 17.68 million pounds.  In 2020, anglers landed an estimated 8.97 million pounds of fish, exceeding their RHL by nearly 55 percent.  In addition to the fish that they landed, they also released an estimated 29.78 million black sea bass.  Scientists estimate that about 15 percent of all released black sea bass subsequently die, so anglers killed almost 4.5 million fish in addition to what they had landed.

If those 4.5 million sea bass averaged a half-pound apiece, total recreational removals in 2020 would have been around 10.22 million pounds; if they averaged a pound, removals would have been somewhere around 12.47 million.  At the same time, the commercial quota for 2020 was set at 5.58 million pounds,  When that commercial quota is added to the recreational removals, the total provides some reason to worry.

If the average size of black sea bass released by anglers was only a half-pound, there is no imminent risk to the stock.  But if the average size of the black sea bass released by anglers in 2020 reached a full pound, and if the commercial fishery caught its full quota, then fishermen would have removed a total of 18.05 million pounds of black sea bass from the population, a figure 307,000 pounds over the Overfishing Limit.

Overfishing would have occurred, and NMFS would be obligated to take action to prevent such overfishing from continuing.

Because of COVID-19, market demand for black sea bass wasn’t very strong for much of 2020, so the full commercial quota probably wasn’t landed, and overfishing probably didn’t occur. 

2021 could see a very different outcome.

COVID-19, while far from defeated, is presenting less of a threat as more and more people receive vaccines.  The restaurant business is slowly opening up and serving more customers, raising demand for seafood.  Commercial black sea bass landings are likely to increase in response. 

If the commercial fishery lands its entire quota in 2021, and angling effort remains constant, there is a very real risk that black sea bass could experience overfishing this year.

Thus, the legal question:  Is NMFS confident that there is at least a 50 percent probability that status quo recreational management measures will prevent overfishing in 2021?  If it lacks such confidence, it must further restrict recreational landings, or risk running afoul of Magnuson-Stevens.

However, despite such risk of overfishing, it is bluefish, not black sea bass, that presents the most compelling case for NMFS to reject the Council’s recommendations for status quo management measures.

Bluefish are already overfished; although they weren’t experiencing overfishing in the terminal year of the last stock assessment update, they were in every year between 1985 and 2017.  

In 2019, the Mid-Atlantic Council took action to reduce 2020 bluefish landings to the target level.  In doing so, it made assumptions that would result in the least restrictive management management measures possible (i.e., that 2019 recreational landings would be the same as landings in 2018, 13.27 million pounds, rather than reflect the three-year average of 23.15 million pounds; and also using a 4.03 million pound estimate for release mortality, rather than the 9.90 million pound estimate used in the benchmark stock assessment).

Based on such assumptions, the Council believed that it would only require a 28.78 percent reduction in landings to keep them within the recreational harvest limit.

The Council was wrong.  2020 recreational data reveals that bluefish landings were 13.58 million pounds, nearly 45 percent above the 9.48 million pound RHL, and just slightly more than landings in 2018.

That creates a particularly uncomfortable situation for NMFS, due to a regulation that it adopted in 2013.  That regulation provides, in the case of bluefish,

“If the fishery-level [annual catch limit] is exceeded and landings from the recreational fishery are determined to be the sole cause of the overage, and no transfer between the commercial and recreational sector was made for the fishing year…then the following procedure will be followed:

“(1) If biomass is below the threshold, the stock is under rebuilding, or biological reference points are unknown.  If the most recent estimate of biomass is below the BMSY threshold (i.e., B/BMSY is less than 0.5), the stock is under a rebuilding plan, or the biological reference points (B or BMSY) are unknown, and the [annual catch limit] has been exceeded, then the exact amount, in pounds, by which the most recent year’s recreational catch estimate exceeded the most recent year’s [annual catch limit] will be deducted from the following year’s recreational [annual catch target], or as soon as possible thereafter, once catch data are available, as a single-year adjustment…  [emphasis added]”

The clear language of that regulation strongly suggests that anglers, who exceeded their RHL by 4.1 million pounds in 2020, can look forward to paying that overage back very soon.  Hopefully, that will occur this season, which will still leave room for a 5.38 million pound RHL; if NMFS doesn’t deem that payback to be “possible” in 2021, it’s going to come in 2022, when the new rebuilding plan will be in effect and the RHL is likely to be even smaller.

Whenever it comes, recreational fishermen can almost certainly kiss the 3-fish bag limit (5 for the for-hires) goodbye, and maybe the year-round season and/or lack of a size limit as well.

Of course, it’s possible that NMFS will try to find a way around its own regulation, but “possible” is a long way from “likely.”  The current administration’s support for conservation seems real, making an attempted workaround that much less likely than it might have been just a year ago.

Thus, the newly-released 2020 recreational numbers could have a real impact on the management of one or more Mid-Atlantic species.






Sunday, April 18, 2021


 Last Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service finally released recreational catch and landings estimates for the 2020 season.

The estimates were delayed due to COVID-19 interrupting the usual in-person angler interviews, in which surveyors count and measure fish caught at numerous locations along the coast as part of the Marine Recreational Information Program.  Effort data, collected through a mail survey, was relatively unaffected by the disease.  So for 2020, instead of following its usual practice of issuing preliminary estimates for both each two-month “wave” and for the entire year, and then refining and finalizing such estimates later on, NMFS waited until it could calculate a final set of figures before releasing anything at all.

Given the circumstances that they were working under, it probably made sense to take that approach, particularly because, in most places, no data was available for most of March and April, and data was limited for most of the rest of the year.  To calculate the 2020 recreational catch and landings estimates, NMFS had to address gaps in the data by “imputing” catch and harvest levels based on patterns established in previous years.  Such imputation probably couldn’t be done without first obtaining a full year of data.

But while that approach was sensible, it left fishery managers flying blind when they set 2021 rules, because they had no idea of whether the regulations that they adopted for the 2020 season were constraining catch to or below the recreational harvest limits.  Lackingsuch information, managers tended to carry 2020 regulations into 2021, althoughin some cases, it didn’t seem wise to do so.  Striped bass provided a notable exception to such status quo rules, since Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan kicked in last year, and called for an 18 percent reduction in fishing mortality along the entire coast.

So did 2020 regulations manage to keep harvest under control?  And what implications do 2020 landings hold for fisheries in 2021 and beyond?

Looking at five popular mid-Atlantic fisheries, bluefish, summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, and striped bass, the results seem to be a mixed bag.

Striped bass probably present the simplest picture.  2019 recreational landings were estimated to be around 2.15 million fish; in 2020, the estimate fell to about 1.71 million fish.  That represents about a 20.5 percent decline.

However, the data also shows that the reductions in landings weren’t shared equally.  New England was hit particularly hard, with New Hampshire’s landings down 79 percent, Massachusetts’ down 66 percent, Rhode Island’s down 65 percent (although the percent standard error in the 2020 estimate was very high), and Maine’s down 50 percent.  Connecticut was the only New England state to buck the trend, with landings increasing by about 6 percent.  

On the other hand, New York, Connecticut’s cross-Sound neighbor, followed the trend of greater New England, seeing its striped bass landings fall by 59 percent.

Farther south, New Jersey saw its landings increase by 26 percent, by far the highest increase on the coast, while in neighboring Delaware landings fell by 85 percent, the steepest decline experienced anywhere.  In the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, Maryland landings fell by a very modest 4 percent, while Virginia’s recreational harvest actually rose by 17 percent.

At this point, it’s reasonable to ask why coastwide landings fell.  

Was it due to the new regulations adopted pursuant to Addendum VI, which sought an 18% coastwide reduction in fishing mortality, compared to 2017, in order to end overfishing and reduce fishing mortality to the target level?  Was it due to a reduction in angling effort?  Or was it due to a lack of striped bass?

The answer to that question isn’t completely clear, although it appears that Addendum VI probably played a significant role. 

It is clear that there was no decline in angling effort.  In 2019, anglers along the New England and mid-Atlantic coasts took a little under 15.8 million directed striped bass trips.  That number increased very slightly, to just over 15.9 million trips in 2020, although the difference between the years was so slight as to be statistically insignificant.  So the reason for the decline in landings must have been something else.

The cause for a decline in landings also doesn’t appear to be a lack of fish.  In 2019, anglers caught nearly 31 million striped bass; that number went up to over 32 million bass in 2020, about a 5 percent increase.  When catch increases while effort remains flat, it’s reasonable to assume that a greater number of fish were available to anglers—something confirmed by anecdotal reports of large schools of small bass from the 2015 year class being encountered by anglers everywhere between Virginia and Maine.

What is harder to discern is whether the decline in landings was due to regulations imposed pursuant to Addendum VI, to the presence of fish that were too small for anglers to legally retain even before Addendum VI was adopted, or to anglers releasing a larger percentage of fish that they could have legally retained.

All three factors probably played a role, but there is little question that Addendum VI’s slot limit reduced the number of large fish retained by anglers.  The only places where anglers could legally retain striped bass larger than 35 inches in 2020 were New Jersey, Virginia, and in Maryland during its spring “trophy” season; the latter area was the only place where bass over 38 inches could be legally landed. 

In 2019, anglers harvested over 550,000 striped bass with a fork length of 33 inches or more (because NMFS data uses fork length, while state regulations generally use length-over-all data, I used a 33-inch fork length as equivalent to a 35-inch length-over-all, although that’s only a rough approximation); after Addendum VI imposed the 28- to 35-inch slot, the harvest of fish with a fork length over 33 inches dropped by almost half, to slightly under 230,000.  That reduction in the number of larger bass that were retained would account for about half of the decline in landings between 2019 and 2020.

Given that, it would be difficult to argue that Addendum VI did not play a role, although it was probably not the only reason that 2020 landings were lower.

The other big question is whether Addendum VI met its goal of reducing landings by 18 percent, compared to 2017.  In that regard, the Addendum appears to have been a success. 

2017 striped bass landings were approximately 2.9 million fish.  In 2020, only 1.7 million striped bass were landed.  That’s nearly a 42 percent decrease, more than twice the 18 percent reduction called for in Addendum VI.  

Of course, there’s more to reducing fishing mortality than just cutting landings; release mortality must be considered, too.  But given that the number of bass released dropped from 38.0 million in 2017 to 30.7 million in 2020, a 19 percent reduction, it appears that the drop in release mortality fell within Addendum VI parameters, too.

Again, there can be multiple reasons for the decline in landings, apart from Addendum VI.  2020 effort was down somewhat compared to 2017, but nowhere near enough to account for the full 42 percent reduction in landings.  And overall catch in 2020 was about 21 percent lower than it was in 2017 which, even when adjusted for lower angler effort, suggests that fewer fish were available to anglers (although, without a stock assessment update, that’s just a guess).

But the combination of declining effort and any decline in the number of fish that might have been available to anglers would only account for about half of the 42 percent reduction in landings since 2017.  Given that, and given the 20.5 percent landings reduction between 2019 and 2020, when the Amendment's new management measures kicked in, it’s probably safe to assume that Addendum VI did, in fact, do its job.

Thus, the recently released 2020 striped bass catch and landings data paint a fairly clear picture.  It reveals that landings continue to decline, and that Addendum VI is probably working at least as well, and very possibly better, than fishery managers had intended—at least in 2020.  

That's all good news.

On Thursday, I’ll take a look at four stocks managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, where the 2020 estimates tell very different stories.  At least one of those stories is surprisingly good; others give cause for concern.

Thursday, April 15, 2021


Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a so-called “90-day finding” in response to a petition brought to list the shortfin mako shark under the Endangered Species Act.  NMFS stated that

“We find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.  Therefore, we are initiating a status review of the species to determine whether listing under the ESA is warranted.”

It’s important to note that the 90-day finding says that “action may be warranted,” not that the shortfin mako will definitely be listed as either “endangered” or “threatened.”  The 90-day finding is merely the first step in a process that will ultimately determine whether a listing is justified; petitions that are clearly without merit would be dismissed at this point.

But the shortfin mako petition has survived that initial step in the process.  NMFS must now conduct a final review to determine whether the shortfin mako should be designated a threatened or endangered species.  Such determination is supposed to be issued within 12 months after NMFS received the listing petition, although as a practical matter it may be delayed if there are inadequate agency resources available to complete the review within that time.

The petition was presented to NMFS on January 25, 2021; it was prepared by Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that describes itself as

“the premier U.S.-based national conservation organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of imperiled species and their habitats in North America.”

While Defenders of Wildlife may be engaging in a bit of puffery in designating itself the “premier” national conservation organization—a title that lies largely in the eyes and mind of the person bestowing such title—there is little doubt that it is a large, capable, and well-funded organization, which is not afraid to engage the federal government on wildlife management issues, even if that means resorting to the courts if the government stakes out a position different from the organization’s own.

Thus, the Defenders of Wildlife’s listing petition needs to be taken seriously, and from all indications, NMFS is doing just that.  As the 90-day finding states,

“Information in the petition and readily available in our files indicates that the primary threat facing the species is overutilization in fisheries worldwide, and we find that listing the shortfin mako as a threatened or endangered species under the ESA may be warranted on this threat alone…

“According to information cited in the petition and readily available in our files, the greatest threat to the shortfin mako shark is historical and ongoing overfishing…Landings in the Atlantic [in 2019] totaled 45,959 [metric tons] (50 percent of global reported catch)…Reported catch, however, is a substantial underestimate of actual catch.  [One recently published paper] estimates that in the Atlantic, only 25 percent of the total catch is reported to [the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas]…In fact, levels of fishing mortality in Northwest Atlantic estimated through fisheries-independent satellite telemetry data were found to be 10 times greater than previous estimates from fisheries dependent data, and 5-18 times greater than those associated with maximum sustainable yield…”

That’s strong language, but it doesn’t mean that NMFS has already decided that the shortfin mako is facing an extinction-level threat.  Yet the fact that NMFS is now recognizing the mako’s very real problems is a refreshing change.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, under the previous administration, the United States, along with the European Union, was one of the few ICCAT members that wanted to maintain a mako fishery in the face of scientific advice strongly suggesting that all shortfin mako landings should be prohibited.  Hopefully, today’s 90-day finding reflects the new administration’s realization that the shortfin mako is in serious trouble, and that might, hopefully, lead to a change of heart during this year’s ICCAT deliberations.

Certainly, such change is needed.  A stock assessment for the shortfin mako, released by ICCAT biologists in 2019, said that

“spawning stock fecundity, defined as the number of pups produced each year, will continue to decline until approximately 2035 even with no fishing, because the cohorts that have been depleted in the past will age into the mature population over the next few decades (the median age at maturity is 21 years)…

“For [two runs of a population model that made slightly different assumptions], a [total allowable catch] of between 800-900 [metric tons], including dead discards, resulted in a >50% probability of…the joint probability of [a fishing mortality rate that is below the rate that results in maximum sustainable yield] and [spawning stock fecundity that is above the fecundity level necessary for the shortfin mako stock to produce maximum sustainable yield] by 2070.  [Another model run], which assumed a low productivity stock-recruitment relationship, showed that only [a total allowable catch] between 0 and 100 [metric tons] (including dead discards) resulted in a >50% probability of [achieving the desired result] by 2070.”

That’s not an encouraging forecast, and it was irresponsible for the United States to insist on maintaining some level of shortfin mako landings after receiving such a report.

I’ve been involved in the recreational shark fishery along the northeast coast since the late 1970s, and have watched mako abundance decline sharply over the years.  There are places where I used to regularly catch between three and six makos on a single trip; today, in the same places, I’m doing well if I catch two or three makos in the course of an entire season.

That, in itself, doesn’t mean that shortfin makos merit an ESA listing, but it certainly suggests that they’re not doing well.

Thus, I look on the 90-day finding with hope. 

On one hand, it would be bad news if NMFS decides that the  shortfin mako's future is so much in doubt that the species is found to be “threatened,” or even “endangered.”  Such a finding would be an indictment of both the ICCAT management process and of the ICCAT member nations, particularly including the United States, that allowed the population to decline that far.

On the other hand, such a listing would represent a long-awaited acknowledgement that the shortfin mako is facing real peril, and that management action is needed to begin rebuilding the stock.  While a listing won’t prevent makos from being killed on the high seas, it would prevent the United States from condoning such killing, and require it to take action that might make things right.

That would, at least, be a start.

For as the old cliché goes, the first step in solving a problem is admitting that it exists.