I was finishing up my comments on the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, when one of the questions asked in the “Recreational Release Mortality” section stopped me cold.
“Should management focus on reducing effort in the fisher in order to reduce the number of striped bass caught and released?”
I read that question and wondered, “Why would anyone want to do that?”
The fact that the question was even asked demonstrates how badly managers misunderstand the recreational striped bass fishery.
During the years 2015-2019, anglers released almost 92 percent of all striped bass caught. The percentage has remained very consistent through the years, ranging from a low of 89.26 percent in 2015 to a high of 93.33 percent in 2018. Out of the more than 170 million bass caught during that five-year period, nearly 157 million were returned to the water.
While many of those released fish were undersized, and could not be legally retained, many others were voluntarily released because, for the most part, striped bass anglers primarily seeking recreation, not food, when they spend time on the water, although most probably do keep a bass from time to time.
Right now, the best available science suggests that about 9 percent of all released bass die. That’s a relatively low release mortality rate, which compares very favorably with release mortality rates of 10 percent for summer flounder, and 15 percent for scup, black sea bass, and bluefish.
Still, 9 percent of the 157,000,000 bass released over the course of five years isn’t a trivial number. It’s not surprising that recreational release mortality accounts for nearly half of all striped bass fishing mortality. That’s what you’d expect in a fishery that’s prosecuted primarily for catch-and-release, not catch-and-kill.
But fishery managers don’t see it that way. The so-called “Work Group” report that preceded the Public Information Document stated 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. Many [work group] members pointed to the fact that recreational discards accounted for just under 50% of the fishing mortality as a basis for the critical need to address this issue. Others noted that, particularly in states with primarily catch and release fisheries, the Board is running out of ways to control removals in the fishery.”
Looking at the issue objectively, those comments just don’t make sense.
But they do reflect an unfortunate bias that still prevails among marine fisheries managers. Too many of them are still operating within an outdated paradigm that can be summed up as “Dead fish in a cooler are good. Dead fish in the water are bad. Our job is to keep enough live fish in the water to put lots of dead fish in coolers.”
It’s all about putting dead fish in the coolers.
Think about it. Have you ever heard a fishery manager say that there is a “critical need” to address landings because they constituted “just under 50% of the fishing mortality.” In the striped bass fishery, combined recreational and commercial landings account for exactly 50 percent of fishing mortality (recreational landings at 42 percent, commercial landings at 8 percent), but not a single manager is talking about “the critical need to address this issue,” because they value dead fish in a cooler. Recreational release mortality is being singled out as the problem, because they can’t comprehend that some additional dead fish in the water might be the price that needs to be paid in order to appropriately manage the striped bass fishery.
Yet the real problem is fishing mortality from all sources, not just recreational releases. As I’ve written many times before, dead is dead. A bass that dies after being released is no deader, and has no more adverse impact on the stock, as a bass that slowly succumbs to asphyxiation while lying on ice in a cooler.
Yet marine fisheries managers, particularly in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, remain focused on landings as the gold standard of fisheries management. That makes sense when managing a primarily commercial fishery, or a recreational fishery prosecuted primarily for food, such as summer flounder, bjut it makes no sense at all when managing a recreational sport fishery such as striped bass.
In such fisheries, anglers’ primary motivation is to encounter, and hopefully catch, fish on a regular basis, even if the great majority—but not all—of those fish end up being released.
Such fisheries should be managed for abundance. Abundance drives angler effort, and increased effort results in increased recreational opportunity, and the increased economic benefits that result.
When a fishery is managed for abundance rather than for landings, recreational release mortality is likely to rise, but so long as overall fishing mortality stays at or below target, that’s not a problem.
However, higher levels of release mortality do mean that restrictions on landings must be tightened to keep overall fishing mortality under control. And for traditional marine fisheries managers, who worship at the mid-20th Century altar of maximum sustainable yield, the idea of intentionally managing in a way that increases release mortality and leads to lower landings is an inconceivable heresy.
In that regard, marine fisheries managers in the northeast and mid-Atlantic are at least 50 years behind the times.
Both in freshwater fisheries and in saltwater fisheries elsewhere on the coast, no-kill regulations (e.g., many “quality” trout waters, Florida tarpon and bonefish) and restrictive regulations that promote catch-and-release angling (muskellunge, Alaska for-hire halibut, Florida snook and permit) are frequently seen.
But on the East Coast, fisheries managers remain laser-focused on maintaining landings. Thus, the PID’s baseless complaint that “in states with primarily catch and release fisheries, the Board is running out of ways to control removals in the fishery.”
After all, if the state’s striped bass fishery is primarily catch and release, managers can adopt very restrictive restrictions on landings without significantly disrupting that fishery. Some for-hire operators might be unhappy with more landings restrictions, but given that, using the same 2015-2019 timeframe used above, the for-hire fleet only accounted for a little over 2 percent of all striped bass trips (low of 1.60 percent in 2016, high of 2.73 percent in 2017), such concerns flow from a very small sector of the recreational striped bass fishery; management should reflect how the resource is used by the great majority of anglers.
Some managers have reportedly asked what more they can do when the bag limit has already been reduced to one fish. The answer to that question is simple: More restrictive size limits, and shorter seasons.
Folks who manage other recreational sport fisheries, in both fresh and salt water, have already figured that out.
“Manage muskellunge for a variety of unique fishing opportunities (including trophy, quality action, and harvest) within balanced aquatic communities,”
“A. Trophy Fisheries—Manage Class A1 waters to increase the catch of 45” and larger muskellunge, with some fish 50” and larger.
B. Action Fisheries—Manage Class A2 waters for a catch rate of 1 muskellunge (any size) per 25 hours of muskellunge angling.
C. Improve Existing Fisheries—Rehabilitate former muskellunge waters that have experienced substantial declines in the muskellunge population; improve Class B and C fisheries.”
Wisconsin also stresses the need for education that complements its muskellunge management program, and is taking steps to
“Provide information and technical assistance to our partners, anglers, and lakeshore property owners. Continue to emphasize the value of catch and release. Clarify the role that muskellunge play within aquatic ecosystems, including interactions with other species. [emphasis added]”
The muskellunge’s role in freshwater fisheries is roughly analogous to the striped bass’ role on the coast. Both fish are apex predators in their ecosystem, and among the largest fish encountered by anglers in the waters where they swim. Both also support what might be called “prestige” recreational fisheries; anglers who catch a large striped bass, like those who catch a large muskellunge, tend to be proud of their accomplishment, and often appear in the pages of local outdoor publications.
But the management is so much different.
In Wisconsin, fishery managers recognize what’s important to muskellunge fishermen. They may write about managing for “trophy, quality action, and harvest,” but the state’s natural (i.e., non-stocked, “Class A”) waters are being managed primarily for either “trophy” or “action” fisheries; regulations permit harvest in such waters, but such harvest is subordinate to the other two management goals.
Like striped bass, muskellunge enjoy very low release mortality rates when caught on artificial lures and properly handled prior to release, although research shows that they suffer very high levels of delayed mortality when caught on live bait, where gut-hooking is often an issue. While Wisconsin fishery managers seek to encourage anglers catch and release muskellunge, the ASMFC, which clearly doesn’t recognize what’s important to most striped bass anglers, would consider limiting catch-and-release, so that more bass could be killed and brought home.
The ASMFC just doesn’t understand how to manage a truly recreational fishery.
In salt water, Florida’s snook regulations may provide the best example of how managers should address such fisheries. Snook fishing is, in many ways, like fishing for striped bass—you can catch them in inlets and around structure such as bridges and piers, cast to shorelines (typically mangroves instead of sod banks or stone), fish for them in the surf, etc.
Not to mention the fact that snook taste at least as good as striped bass do.
Like striped bass, snook are managed with a 1-fish bag (although on a for-hire boat, neither captain nor crew may retain a fish) and a slot limit. But, where the striped bass slot includes fish falling between 28 and 35-inches, the snook slot is narrower, 28 to 32 inches on the Atlantic coast and 28 to 33 inches on the west coast and Everglades. The snook fishing season is also closed from December 15-January 31 and June 1-August 31 on the Atlantic side, and December 1-February 28 (or 29) and May 1-August 31 in the Gulf of Mexico/Everglades to further protect the fish (in recent years, parts of the Gulf have been completely closed due to the effects of red tide on the local snook population).
As with striped bass, recreational release mortality makes a contribution to overall snook fishing mortality. The State of Florida believes that such release mortality makes up no less than 43 percent, and very probably about 50 percent, of all snook fishing mortality. That falls right into line with release mortality’s 48 percent contribution to striped bass fishing mortality.
But Florida, unlike the ASMFC, isn’t even talking about reducing catch-and-release fishing effort in order to increase snook landings. Instead, it acknowledges the recreational and economic value of what is primarily a catch-and-release fishery (one state study showing that about 97 percent of fish caught on the Gulf coast were returned to the water), and crafts its snook regulations to take account of both landings and release mortality—even if that means closing the fishery during the height of the winter tourist season, when light-tackle guides and other for-hire operators would undoubtedly profit from an open season.
Because that’s how a recreational sport fishery ought to be managed: For abundance, for maximum recreational opportunity, and maximum recreational effort.
Landings are, at best, a secondary consideration.
East Coast managers need to figure that out, for if they don’t, they’ll get striped bass management wrong.