Sunday, June 27, 2021


 The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s doctrine of “conservation equivalency,” which permits states to implement management measures different from those adopted by a particular species management board, is a vexing concept.

In theory, it may make sense to allow states to tailor management measures to their particular fisheries, provided that such measures have the same conservation impact on the stock being managed.

In reality, no two years’ fisheries are the same.  Fish abundance varies from year to year.  A big year class of bass entering the fishery will cause a spike in angling effort; as one Massachusetts fishery manager, Dr. Michael Armstrong, noted in an American Sportfishing Association webinar about one year ago, when striped bass become more abundant,

“fishing effort skyrockets…if the stock doubles, fishing effort doesn’t double, it quadruples.”

On the other hand, when bass become less abundant, particularly if other species are easier to catch, anglers exit the striped bass fishery and direct their effort elsewhere.

That makes it difficult to craft regulations, which rely heavily on past effort, catch, and landings to predict what anglers will do in the future, when conditions almost certainly will have changed.

Add to that unavoidable uncertainty the behavior of states like New Jersey, that try to present already uncertain data in a way that minimizes their harvest reductions, while pushing some portion of their conservation burden onto the shoulders of other coastal states, and one finds, as a practical matter, that crafting regulations that are truly “conservation equivalent” is nearly impossible.

The task is difficult enough that one might reasonably ask whether any imagined benefits of the conservation equivalency process could justify the level of labor and management uncertainty that such process injects into the already challenging task of striped bass management.

Such question arose more than once at meetings of the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, and in comments submitted by stakeholders in response to the Public Information Document to Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass. The Management Board voted to include conservation equivalency as one of the topics to be examined in the draft Amendment 7 to the management plan, and on June 24, the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Plan Development Team met to discuss how to do it.

It was an interesting discussion, that examined conservation equivalency from a number of angles, and systematically addressed its important aspects.  When it was over, the PDT had come up with a comprehensive set of options to place before the Management Board, although some of those options will need Management Board input before being put into final form in the draft Amendment.

The beginning of the PDT discussion touched on basic issues, such as who should be impacted by changes to conservation equivalency rules.  

Should such changes only limit the use of conservation equivalency when applied to the recreational fishery?  That makes a sort of sense, given that’s where most of the abuses take place.  

Should the limits be expanded just a bit farther, to include “non-quota-managed” fisheries?  That would include things like New Jersey’s “bonus” fish program, which transfers part of the state’s unused commercial quota (New Jersey does not permit commercial striped bass fishing) to the recreational fishery, so that anglers may legally harvest striped bass, including immature female striped bass, that fall within a 24 to 28-inch slot.  

Or should restrictions on the use of conservation equivalency apply to everyone, recreational and commercial alike?

That’s something that the Management Board will have to decide.

The Management Board will also have to decide when conservation equivalency should be allowed.  

Should it be prohibited when the stock is overfished, when overfishing is occurring, or during a rebuilding period?  Should conservation equivalency not be allowed after the Management Board adopts measures to reduce harvest?  Or should there merely be a delay—say, three years or so—after new management measures are put in place, before conservation equivalency may be used, so that scientists can get a better idea of how the new rules will impact the stock, before allowing states to create their own exceptions to the Board-approved rules?

One PDT member suggested a more preemptive measure, that would prohibit the use of CE once the Management Board began work on, but has not yet completed, an addendum to implement harvest reductions.

There was also an examination of why conservation equivalency should be invoked.  

One proposal would limit the use of conservation equivalency to situations when biological or ecological conditions put a state or a fishery at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the coast.  For example, rather than maintain the coastwide 28 to 35-inch slot limit on the Hudson River, the application of conservation equivalency permitted New York to adopt an 18 to 28-inch slot there, in order to place most of the fishing pressure on male striped bass, and not on the mature females that ascend the river to spawn.

Another proposal would also permit the use of conservation equivalency to address socioeconomic issues.  However, as at least one PDT member acknowledged, a socioeconomic argument could be made to cover just about any situation, so allowing conservation equivalency to be used to address socioeconomic issues would not constitute any sort of real limitation at all.

Another option would completely bar the use of conservation equivalency in striped bass management, which would be the easiest and, to many, the most desirable course, but would also get quite a few folks upset and leave some real, biologically-based hardships unresolved.

The discussion of when and how conservation equivalency should be used touched on a number of salient points.  There is widespread sentiment, both on the Management Board and among stakeholders, that the use of conservation equivalency in the striped bass fishery has strayed a long way from the original intent of easing real hardships, and that if meaningful limitations were put around its use, most of the other objections to conservation equivalency would probably go away.   I think that is true.

Another PDT member suggested that it would make sense to align the use of conservation equivalency with the goals and objectives of the management plan, which seems completely right—every measure in the final Amendment 7 should further such goals and objectives; after all, isn’t that what goals and objectives are for?

Once again, the Management Board will have to consider such points and decide which, if any, of the limitations will appear in the draft Amendment 7.

After that, the issues became a bit more nuanced and technical.

For example, the PDT discussed whether there should be any limitation on the number of conservation equivalency proposals a single state might present.  The ASMFC publication, Conservation Equivalency: Policy and Technical Guidance Document, warns that

”Proposals that include an excessive number of options may delay timely review by the [Plan Review Team] and other groups and may ultimately delay the report to the Board.  The states should limit the number of options included in a proposal or prioritize the options for review.”

However, that warning, like so many other good ideas contained in the ASMFC’s guiding documents, is generally ignored in practice.  

Prior to the Management Board’s February 2020 meeting, when the current regulations were finalized, various states proposed more than fifty possible conservation equivalency alternatives.  Although rationality later prevailed, and most states agreed, at the meeting, to withdraw their proposals, enough bad ideas survived the process that the probability of reducing fishing mortality to target fell from 50% to a pathetically low 42%.

Ultimately, the PDT decided to refer the question to the Management Board, where it might or might not be resolved.

There is also the issue of the quality of the data underlying state CE proposals.

While the Marine Recreational Information Program produces fairly good data, if it is used on a coastwide basis, data quality quickly declines when it is used at finer scales.  Thus, when it comes to state level data, it isn’t a question of whether managers are using data that’s truly good—it almost certainly isn’t—but whether they’re using data that’s at least good enough.

Thus, three options were put on the table.  Either, 1) allow ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee set the standards for data quality on an ad hoc basis, 2) require a percent standard error of less than 50, or 3) require a PSE of less than 40.  An interesting discussion ensued.

It turns out that MRIP itself has decided that data with a PSE greater than 50 is unsuitable for management use, so one PDT member supported that option.  But another pointed out that MRIP also suggests that data be used only on an annual coastwide basis, rather than being broken down into state, wave, and/or mode; if the ASMFC could regularly ignore the latter guidance, why should it feel bound by MRIP’s cap on PSE?  Plus, putting a hard standard in Amendment 7 would create problems should MRIP decide to adopt a new maximum PSE standard that is either higher or lower than the 50 currently in place.

It was also noted that setting a hard standard for data might create hardships for states which, for whatever reason, have particularly high PSEs, particularly if such states wish to set separate regulations for wave or mode.

That led to another discussion, of whether states that opt for conservation equivalency ought to be required to incorporate a buffer to account for uncertainty; under such buffer, any reduction would have to be 25% greater, and any landings increase 25% less, than would be required or allowed under coastwide measures. Doing so would make sense, as the state-level numbers are far too imprecise to justify depending on the point estimates to constrain harvest.  

While 25% might seem like a very large buffer to some, everyone should remember that it would not have been large enough to prevent Maryland’s massive overages in 2015-2019, when that state not only failed to achieve the 20.5% reduction required, but increased landings more than 50% over what they had been in 2012, because managers failed to consider, and buffer for, the impact of the big 2011 year class entering the fishery when calculating the supposedly “conservation equivalent” regulations.

Another important provision being proposed would require that any state that adopts conservation equivalency must, at a minimum, adopt management measures that would have the same conservation impact, in that particular state, as the coastwide measures adopted by the Management Board.  While such provision makes perfect sense, as any lesser standard would undercut the overall management plan, it’s sad that it needs to be added to the draft Amendment 7 at all, since the ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Program Charter already defines “conservation equivalency” as

“Actions taken by a state which differ from the specific requirements of the [fishery management plan], but which achieve the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management.  For example, various combinations of size limits, gear restrictions, and season length can be demonstrated to achieve the same targeted level of fishing mortality.  The appropriate Management Board/Section will determine conservation equivalency.  [emphasis added]”

Unfortunately, in practice, the clear intent of the Charter has been subverted by a Management Board that has repeatedly allowed states to adopt conservation-equivalent measures that clearly did not achieve the same "quantified level of conservation" as the coastwide measures.  The most recent example of that was the above-referenced adoption of conservation equivalency measures, primarily for New Jersey and Maryland, in February 2020, which so degraded Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan:  18% Reduction in Removals and Circle Hook Measures that it ended up having a 58% probability of failing to meet its management goals.

Thus, it’s clear why this proposal would be a boon for striped bass management.

One thing that I found disappointing was that the Technical Committee can’t calculate the probability of a state conservation equivalency measure succeeding, although it can calculate how any such measure will impact the probable success of coastwide management efforts.  It’s not just a question of time or effort; the analytical tools to do state-level calculations just don’t exist, making it impossible for the TC to do the analysis, no matter how willing it might be to do so.

That’s just another reason to be wary of approving CE.

Finally, the Plan Development Team got to one of the most contentious issues:  Whether states should be held accountable for failed conservation equivalency measures, what “failure” even means, and what hoops a state should be expected to jump through to validate its conservation equivalency proposals.

One early suggestion was that states adopting conservation equivalent management measures should also implement data collection programs to supplement the data provided by MRIP.  

Given the uncertainty inherent in state-level MRIP data, there would be a clear benefit in such supplementary data collection, but precisely when such data would be required, and how much supplemental data would be required, remain open questions.  The draft Amendment 7 might include one toothless option that merely “encourages” a state to collect more data, a second that requires supplemental data if the state’s conservation equivalency proposal exceeds predetermined parameters, and a third that would require supplementary data collection for all conservation equivalent management measures.

To the question of just how much supplementary data would be needed, one PDT member responded that such question should be answered on a case-by-case basis,

“depending on how far they’re stretching the data,”

which should probably raise additional questions as to whether proposals that require the states to “stretch” available data ought to be allowed at all.

Yet that still leaves open the question of how to deal with states when their conservation equivalent measures fail to adequately constrain landings.

That’s a difficult question, because many factors play into each season’s landing levels, including angler effort, the availability of the fish themselves, and the uncertainty inherent in MRIP data.  Even in a perfect world, annually shifting patterns of striped bass abundance, and anglers’ response to those shifts, would make it nearly impossible to predict future landings based on past outcomes.

Which is precisely why conservation equivalency should be regarded with a very jaundiced eye.

Given such difficulties, one suggested approach was to impose no accountability at all.  A second would require state action if the apparent overage exceeded the percent standard error in the MRIP estimate—which, given the imprecision in MRIP estimates, would require catch to exceed predictions by a substantial amount.  A three-year average of state landings was also suggested, although by the time those three years were up and an accountability measures could be implemented, it is not unlikely that new management measures would be in the works, rendering any accountability largely illusory.

The discussion then began to examine concepts of fault and consequences.

One PDT member asked whether a state should be held accountable if its original calculations were valid, based on past performance in the fishery, but later changes in the fishery intervened and so rendered the conservation equivalent regulations inadequate to constrain harvest.  Maryland’s overages in 2015-2019 were held out as an example.

PDT members seemed sympathetic to that sort of outcome, but I have to admit that I’m not.  While I respect the fact that the Technical Committee must deal with hard data and not engage in flights of “what if,”—and, quite honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way—the Maryland overage was entirely predictable.  

Maryland managers knew that the big 2011 year class would be entering into the fishery, beginning in 2015.  Maryland managers knew that would make striped bass far more available to anglers than they were in the base year of 2012.  And Maryland managers knew—or, at least, should have known, if they paid any attention to how the recreational striped bass fishery works—that such increasing abundance would also result in sharply increased recreational fishing effort, which would translate into sharply increased landings.

Granted, those things that managers knew can’t be precisely quantified into additional restrictions on landings.  At the same time, it’s hard to believe that anyone really thought that bag limits, size limits, and seasons based on 2012 performance, when bass were relatively scarce, would have very much relevance on 2015 performance, when a very large year class of bass would flood into the Chesapeake fishery.  What that equates to is pretty close to the definition of “management uncertainty.”  

If state fishery managers failed to put a buffer in place in an effort to at least try to address such uncertainty, the state should, indeed, be held accountable for such failure.

The other question that was raised is whether a state which opted for conservation equivalency should and failed to constrain harvest to the intended levels should be given a bye if the coastawide goals werestill met, given that such state's failure didn’t impair the goals of the management plan.  The PDT seemed sympathetic to that sort of outcome, but I see the matter a little differently.

I believe in accountability.

If states adopt the coastwide measures adopted by the Management Board, as part of a united coastwide effort to conserve and manage the stock, they should be held collectively accountable.  That is, if the coastwide measures fail to achieve their intended goal, I would expect the Management Board to amend such measures to render them more effective; so long as the coastwide goal is achieved, I’m not too concerned with individual states’ performance, because each state is working together for the same end.

But when a state adopts conservation equivalent regulations, it places itself outside the collective effort, and the collective accountability, for the success of the coastwide management plan, and renders itself uniquely responsible for fisheries within its own state.  

Depending on how the CE measures work out, it may find itself compliant with the goals and objectives of the management plan, but it also may find itself undermining the effectiveness of such plan if, because of such state’s failed CE measures, the coastwide plan fail to achieve its goals.  Or, more relevant to the immediate discussion, it may find itself successfully shifting the burden of conservation onto other states’ shoulders, if its CE measures fail to adequately constrain harvest but, because of other states’ reductions, the coastwide goal is still met.

States which would so place the conservation burden on the shoulders of others should always be held accountable, as a matter of fundamental fairness.

If states are accountable for failed conservation equivalent measures, the Management Board must then decide whether accountability measures are only enforced if the stock is overfished, whether they’re enforced when the fishing mortality rate is above target and spawning stock biomass is below the target level, or whether it is enforced regardless of the status of the stock.

Then there’s the question of when the accountability measures would be put in place.  Doing it in the year following the overage isn’t practical, as the MRIP data isn’t finalized until April of that year, when many states’ season are already underway.  Should a state be required to adopt new measures in the second year after the overage?  Or should a phase-in be allowed?

And even with that decided, what should the accountability measures be?  Should as state merely be required to adopt the coastwide measures?  Or, as one PDT member suggested, should “something extra” be required?

Personally, I think that the latter choice represents the right way to go.  There should be some disincentive for states to adopt CE measures that they know carry a big risk of failure.

In the end, the Plan Development Team did a good job of analyzing a difficult and multi-faceted issue.  Perhaps their conversation could be summed up in one member’s remark that there should be

“more emphasis on conservation equivalency proposals that work than on worrying about when they don’t.”

Of course, that assumes that devising CE proposals that work on a regular basis is something that can be realistically expected.  Personally, I’m still unconvinced.

That’s why, at the end of the meeting, when public input was invited, I told the PDT that I believed that crafting effective conservation equivalency proposals was a highly problematic process, and that Amendment 7 should be written to discourage conservation equivalency’s use.

But if CE is to be used at all, it should be under the conditions set forth in the charter—states’ reductions must be the same as they would have been under coastwide rules—plus a 25% buffer to allow for management uncertainty should be adopted.

Under such conditions, states would be reluctant to seek conservation equivalent proposals except for the most compelling reasons, and most of the problems that CE creates would likely disappear.

Let’s hope that, when time comes for a vote, the majority of the Management Board agrees.




Thursday, June 24, 2021


When the Work Group created by the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board finished its work nearly one year ago, it 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.”

While the Work Group didn’t make it clear why recreational release mortality, which made up 48% of all striped bass fishing mortality in 2018, was a more important issue than reducing the 52% of fishing mortality attributed to other sources, the Management Board still took that message to heart, and voted to include recreational release mortality in the list of issues to be considered in the draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.

Reducing such release mortality presents a dilemma for fishery managers.

They can impose effort controls, in an attempt to reduce the number of bass encountered by recreational fishermen.  By doing so, managers could, in theory, reduce the number of striped bass released, and thus reduce the level of release mortality.

Yet such an approach presents a number of practical problems.  As I’ve noted in many previous posts, the striped bass fishery is overwhelmingly recreational, with anglers responsible for 90% of all fishing mortality.  And anglers release roughly 90% of the bass that they catch.

Thus, the recreational focus is on the angling experience, and not on taking fish home, although plenty of anglers also keep a bass or two—a few keep far more—over the course of a season.  In such a fishery, reducing angling effort enough to have a material impact on release mortality will also have a material impact on both angler satisfaction and on the economic benefits accruing from the recreational striped bass fishery, because both of those benefits are closely tied to effort.

Reducing effort could also prove to be very hard to do.  Striped bass don’t exist in a vacuum, and are incidentally caught by anglers targeting other species.  A Montauk charter boat trolling umbrella rigs for bluefish is very probably going to have a substantial bycatch of bass; an angler bucktailing or drifting sandworms for weakfish along some back-bay sod bank will pick up striped bass as a matter of course.  And there are ethical anglers who will say they are targeting something else while actually looking for bass, knowing that it is practically impossible to prove otherwise.

So reducing anglers encouncers with striped bass is more easily said than done.

Still, managers have only two choices if they want to reduce the number of bass that die after release:  Either try to reduce such encounters, or try to change the way bass are caught and handled, in order to increase the odds of survival.

At the June 17 meeting of the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Plan Development Team, scientists a look at number of options that touched on both approaches.

The initial discussions addressed effort controls, or what in common parlance would be called closed seasons.  

One possible approach is a winter closure on the coast, with December 15-April 15 specifically mentioned.  The problem is that the bass are present along different regions of coast at different times.  New York already has exactly that season in place, so no reduction in mortality would be achieved there.  In New England, fishing is very limited prior to April 15, so even if the season was closed, it wouldn’t have much impact up north, either.  South of the Hudson River, though, the impact would be very real.

The New Jersey season, for example, runs from March 1 through the end of the year, and it isn’t unusual for anglers to catch bass as soon as that season begins.  Further south, the winter closure would have even greater impacts.  The Virginia coastal season is closed from April 1-May 15, but open for the rest of the year, with some of the best fishing, for the largest fish, occurring in December and January.  A December 15-April 15 closure would hit striped bass anglers in Virginia hard, while having almost no impact on their counterparts in Maine, New Hampshire, or Massachusetts.

The same issue arises for one of the other proposed options, prohibiting fishing during half of the days in Wave 4—July and August—when water temperatures would be high and dissolved oxygen levels low, conditions that reduce survival chances for released bass.  

While that would make sense in the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay (Virginia’s season is already closed between mid-June and October), where “slicks” of dead, released bass have been recorded down-tide of anchored fishing fleets, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense in the striper’s core summer range, between eastern Long Island and southern Cape Cod, where the water is relatively cool and well-aerated.  It would also make little sense, and cause a real hardship, in northern New England, where the water is even cooler and July and August account for a good part of the fishing season.

A third option would prohibit fishing in the spawning areas between December 15 and April 1.  Such an option would extend existing closures in the Chesapeake Bay, Hudson River, and Delaware Bay, and would probably do some good.

To some extent, the benefits of such closure would depend on how “spawning area” is defined.  For example, no striped bass spawn in Raritan Bay, on the New York/New Jersey border, but quite a few big female bass are caught, and some percentage killed, in those waters before they ascend the Hudson to spawn.  For those fish, a closure of the Hudson’s spawning reaches would be too little, too late.

All three of the options described above might or might not permit catch-and-release fishing during the closed season, perhaps under very strict rules that require such things as barbless hooks, in-water release, limits on the number of lines fished, etc..  Although the Plan Development Team agreed that prohibiting catch-and-release would be the most effective way to reduce release mortality, it also recognized that it is difficult to prove that an angler was actually targeting striped bass during the closed season; in addition, there was a concern that a complete ban on such targeting would shift effort to other species, although just what species those might be, given that bluefish and weakfish are also overfished, was not completely clear.

To maintain some sort of equity among the regions, the Plan Development Team is also proposing that the states be allowed to set seasonal closures that would achieve reductions equivalent to the option ultimately selected by the Management Board.  The PDT doesn't want such proposal to fall within the definition of "conservation equivalency," because the draft Amendment 7 will very likely contain proposals designed to limit, or perhaps completely eliminate, the use of conservation equivalency inr striped bass management.  But I can't stop thinking about the old adage:  If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck, so if it looks like conservation equivalency…  

Should states be allowed to propose their own seasons, we will see all of the old problems emerge, with states trying to game the system, using imprecise state- and wave-level data to game the system and minimize their actual harvest reductions, and so undercut the effectiveness of the management plan.  For an example of how that works, just take a look at Maryland’s conservation equivalency program, adopted in February of last year.

One other proposal—which I never thought that I’d hear seriously discussed at any ASMFC meeting—was the imposition of a harvest moratorium in the striped bass fishery.

The details of any such moratorium would still have to be fleshed out.  Would it serve as the best way to protect the 2015 year class, and be managed accordingly?  Would it remain in place until the stock was fully rebuilt, or just until it was no longer overfished?  Would it apply to the commercial as well as the recreational fishery (remember that reducing recreational release mortality was the goal)?  Would catch-and-release be allowed?  Right now, that’s not clear, and it’s highly unlikely that the Management Board would adopt such a closure.  

Still, the fact that the PDT would seriously consider a moratoriumh option for inclusion in the draft Amendment 7 shows that they understand that the bass are in deep enough trouble that such a proposal at least merits discussion.

With effort controls out of the way, the Plan Development Team turned to possible gear restrictions.  Bans on gaffing striped bass, on treble hooks, and on chumming were all discussed, as was a barbless hook requirement.

With respect to gaffs, I was honestly surprised at how many states already ban their use in the striped bass fishery.  They’re only allowed in six jurisdictions—Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the District of Columbia—so while I’d personally be happy to see their use outlawed, to prevent the gaff and release of fish that fall under or over the slot, it’s not clear how often that even occurs, or what impact such prohibition would have on overall release mortality.  Even so, it is likely that the draft Amendment 7 will include a requirement for “non-lethal” landing aids (personally, like a lot of bass anglers, I just lean over the side of the boat and grab the lower jaw with one hand, which is about the most non-lethal aid that I can imagine).

I’m not sure what to make of a possible treble hook ban.  Currently, no state has any such regulation in place, although Maine limits lures to no more than two sets of hooks.

Outlawing trebles would certainly reduce release mortality.  If you’ve plugged for bass for any time at all, you’ve had bass that hit the head of the lure, and were firmly snagged in the jaw, but also seriously injured when the tail hook on a plug swung around to pierce an eye or a gill during the course of the fight.  Some anglers are already switching out their trebles for in-line single hooks in an effort to prevent such damage.  

At the same time, from a practical standpoint, I’m not sure whether the ASMFC can reasonably ask the universe of anglers to switch out all the hooks on existing lures, while requesting manufacturers to immediately switch over design and production—not to mention the issues posed by treble-hooked plugs already in the supply chain.  So while banning trebles would probably be an effective way to reduce release mortality, any such provision would probably require a long phase-in before it became a legally-enforceable measure.

Barbless hooks, on the other hand, are something that could be adopted more quickly, provided that “barbless” included hooks with their barbs merely crushed down with pliers.  Many bass fishermen, particularly surfcasters, do that already, not so much to protect the bass as to protect themselves, for no one wants to find themselves standing on a wave-swept rock, a long, deep wade from the shore, with a flopping, 30-pound striper permanently pinned to their thigh by a deeply-imbedded barbed hook.  

Barbless hooks are an option that, at the least, deserves consideration.

As far as chumming bans go?  Some argue that the chum artificially concentrates fish, and so leads to more encounters and greater levels of fishing mortality.  Yet it's not a widespread practice, so it's hard to tell whether banning it would make a measurable difference in striped bass mortality--although I have to admit that if someone banned the practice of clam chumming here on Long island, something that seems to have, thankfully, fallen out of favor in recent years, I certainly would not object.

The last behavior modification that the Plan Development Team discussed, requiring that larger bass be released without removing them from the water, would probably pay the greatest dividends in terms of reducing recreational release mortality.  You may disagree, and it’s possible that I’m wrong, but I firmly believe that cameras and scales—particularly Boga-type scales—are responsible for far more release mortality of larger bass than are gaffs, treble hooks, and other barbed hooks combined. 

Think about it.  

A big bass is already stressed from the fight, far more so than a rat that pretty well gets cranked straight back to the boat or the shore.  Releasing such fish while they’re still in the water will cause far less additional stress, and so increase the bass’ chance for survival, compared to the too typical process of dragging it up on the sand, or dropping it onto the deck of a boat, where the fish gasps and flops while someone digs out a camera and/or scale, at which point the slowly-suffocating fish is waved around in the air for a while, perhaps with a hand shoved up in one gill, perhaps hanging vertically while its weight strains its spine and internal organs, before the bass is finally returned to the sea and allowed to make its escape. 

People like to say “I saw it swim away.  It was fine!” while trying not to consider the realities of delayed mortality.

The PDT had some concerns with the practicality of an in-water release requirement in a fishery that has a harvest component, as people will want to take some larger fish out of the water to measure before, perhaps, having to let them go.  That’s a real issue, but is easily answered by setting a lower limit for in-water release a few inches above the top of the slot—say, 40 inches given the current 35-inch maximum size.  That would allow fishermen to employ a rough measure—the length of a landing net handle, the distance between two points on a rod, etc.—to see if a fish is clearly too large to keep, or whether it is close enough to measure.

Whatever proposals ultimately end up in the draft Amendment 7, release mortality remains a complicated issue.

The problem is real.  Release mortality comprises a large pproortion of overall fishing mortality.  It's not unreasonable to consider it in the draft Amendment 7.  If the PDT and Management Board can come up with a practical and quantifiable way to reduce such mortality, the bass can only come out ahead.

But “practical” and “quantifiable” are key qualifications. 

Asking a state to propose its own closed seasons, in order to attain a specified level of reduction, is probably neither.  To understand why, just consider that the uncertainty—expressed in percent standard error—in coastwide striped bass releases for 2019 was 6.5, which is certainly precise enough for management use.  But limit that data to releases in only Wave 4, and uncertainty doubles, with a PSE of 13.3.  Apply that Wave 4 data on a state level, and uncertainty spikes again, resulting in PSEs that range from 17.8 in Massachusetts, which is still not too bad, to 24.8 in Maryland, the next lowest, to 34.4 in Rhode Island, 35 in New York, 38 in New Jersey, finally topping out at 48 in Virginia.

If you don’t think that New Jersey would be able to do real mischief gaming the system with a 36 PSE, and similarly high PSEs in the other waves, you mustn’t have been paying attention to that state’s past behavior.  Expecting it to suddenly reform, and do right by the resource, is not a practical approach.

The benefits of measures like banning gaffs or treble hooks, or even requiring in-water releases, just aren’t quantifiable.  There is just no data on how many fish are gaffed and released, how many die of treble hook-inflicted injuries, or how may are weighed and photographed to death, although we intuitively know that such mortality occurs. 

Thus we come back to the question of whether singling out recreational release mortality makes sense, or whether, in a fishery that is 90% recreational, that also sees 90% of recreationally-caught fish released, it makes more sense to accept recreational release mortality as an unavoidable byproduct of such fishery’s nature, and just another factor to be considered when calculating the necessary restrictions on landings.

I’ve made it clear over the years that I favor the latter course.  In October, we’ll learn whether the Management Board can come up with a viable alternative.






Sunday, June 20, 2021


When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board voted to leave the biological reference points used to manage the stock unchanged at last May’s meeting, anglers justifiably felt that they had been heard.  A number of state fishery managers and other Management Board members made strong statements favoring effective striped bass management.

The meeting’s outcome was only clouded by the Management Board’s decision to include the management triggers—the provisions that determine when the Management Board must act when fishing mortality rises too high or female spawning stock biomass falls to low—in the list of items to be considered in the draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.

There are currently five management triggers listed in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass:

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 within [ten years or less].

3)      If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management 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.

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 within [ten years or less].

5)      The Management Board shall annually examine trends in all required Juvenile Abundance Index surveys.  If any JAI shows recruitment failure (i.e., JAI is lower than 75% of all other values in the dataset) for three consecutive years, then the Management Board will review the cause of the recruitment failure (e.g. fishing mortality, environmental conditions, disease, etc.) and determine the appropriate management action.  The Management Board shall be the final arbiter in all management decisions.

While there are five management triggers, this discussion will be limited to the first four, as they are directly related to the current biological reference points, which will not be changed in the Amendment 7 process.

The existing management triggers demonstrate why the biological reference points matter as much as they do.  If fishing mortality gets too high, or spawning stock biomass gets too low, compared to such reference points, managers “must” take action to correct the problem within a clearly defined time period.  

In response to the Public Information Document to Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, stakeholders submitted 2,668 written comments in favor of maintaining the current biological reference points, as opposed to only 10 suggesting that they be changed.  While oral testimony at the public hearings/webinars was not quite so supportive, 78 out of 86 people who commented on the issue—over 90%--also opposed any change.

That’s because stakeholders understand just how important it is to maintain striped bass abundance and constrain fishing mortality to a level low enough that it will not cause such abundance to decline.

In May, it appeared that the Management Board understood that, too.

But maybe what we were seeing didn’t reflect what was actually going on.  Maybe stakeholders were being dazzled with a classic bait-and-switch:  We saw the Management Board approve the reference points that stakeholders wanted, but what didn't we see?  

When they approved the reference points, was the Management Board already planning to change the management triggers, in a way that allows them to put off taking management action for an even longer time than they are allowed to delay today?

Were they even planning to eliminate some of the management triggers, and make one or more reference points completely irrelevant to the management process?

I hope not.  

There are a number of people on the Management Board whom I know and respect, and more whom, because of their words and their actions, I hold in high regard.  I don't think they'd do that sort of thing.

And yet...

 I'm not engaging in mere  mere supposition.  Last Thursday I listened in on a Plan Development Team meeting, where potential options for new management triggers were being discussed.  While there were some good ideas, for the most part, I wasn’t particularly happy with what I heard.

To put things in context, let’s go back to the stakeholders’ comments made earlier this spring.

Fewer written comments were submitted on the reference point issue, but of those that were, 394 out of 407—nearly 97%--asked that the reference point-related triggers remain unchanged.  At the hearings, 37 out of 42 speakers who addressed the issue—88%--also supported the status quo.

There was clearly not a lot of desire for change.

In the comment summary provided to the Management Board, ASMFC staff noted that

Many commenters expressed a need for urgency to implement a rebuilding plan and take action in response to management triggers.  [emphasis added]”

Stakeholders’ view that the Management Board takes too long before acting emerged in many of the written comments submitted.  One Maine angler complained that

“Besides delaying on rebuilding the stock, new loopholes have emerged,”

a comment similar to the one made by a fisherman who lives on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod,

“Retain the current targets and schedule and reduce loopholes potentially delaying the rebuilding.”

A recreational fisherman from New York stated that

“There is no compelling, or even legitimate, justification for delay,”

while a New Jersey angler observed that

“The longer we delay, the greater the chances that we will see radical negative outcomes for the species…The longer we delay, the more challenging [the] recovery will be.”

That view was echoed in the comments of an angler from the North Fork of New York’s Long Island, who said,

“More delay is going to prolong the problem and take longer for the stock to recover.”

A Connecticut fisherman begged,                                                       

“let’s not come up with more reasons to delay remedial action,”

and an angler, state of residence unknown, noted that

“The Commission has consistently ignored its own mandates and management triggers, instead favoring what they call ‘flexibility,’ which is an uncreative way of maintaining the economic status quo while delaying any real action that could help a diminishing resource.”

One Massachusetts stakeholder, more colorful than the rest, told the ASMFC that

“You should move as quickly and expeditiously as possible as soon as there is any indication of overfishing, and not fart around or delay your responses!...Of course you need to rebuild the stock as quickly as possible.  You have a long history of NOT rebuilding quickly—or at all—to early signals of declining fisheries.  This has to change…Rebuild the stock quickly, impose conservation measures right away.”

while former Maryland Senator Gerald W. Winegrad, who was very involved in state legislation aimed at reversing the striped bass stock collapse of the late 1970s and early 1980s, put the same thought in more genteel words, saying

The appropriate timeframe to respond to overfishing or an overfished determination is as quickly as possible.  Delay can lead to accelerating declines in the population of rockfish as has been the case in the past and of late.  [emphasis added]”

Former Senator Winegrad has had far more experience than most—including most on the Plan Development Team and Management Board—in dealing with a troubled, and indeed a collapsed, striped bass stock, and certainly doesn't want to see the stock collapse again.  His thoughts ought to be given real deference.

On the other hand, one could scroll through the thousand or so pages of comments, and not find a single one waxing poetic about the beauties of delay.

However, when the Plan Development Team met last Thursday, their discussion wasn’t about changing the management triggers in a way that eliminated impediments to a rapid and effective management response when threats to the stock loomed.

Instead, it was about creating greater impediments to management action.

Understand, I don’t blame the Plan Development Team for that.  Unlike the federal fishery management councils, where the scientific and statistical committees have a very substantial influence on how management plans turn out, at the ASMFC, scientists like those on the PDT take their marching orders from the Management Board, and must do what such Board asks regardless of whether the ask is in accord with their professional views of how the stock should be managed.  Those views, they have to keep to themselves.

And there is no doubt that some members of the Management Board, particularly those who had a hand in producing the Public Information Document, and decided that the “guiding themes” of Amendment 7 should be the bureaucratic concerns of

“management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency,”

rather than, say, developing effective means to rebuild the striped bass stock, and then maintain it at a high level of abundance for the long term, have been hounding the Plan Development Team with new and creative ways to subvert the good outcome of the May Management Board meeting in the draft Amendment 7.

Plus, we all should remember that keeping the current triggers remains an option, and that there is only one way to say “status quo.”  The PDT has been tasked with coming up with alternatives to the current triggers, and they are merely doing what they’ve been asked to do.

Still, some of the things that they’ve come up with are, to be kind, alarming, and would allow years to elapse before known threats to the striped bass stock are addressed.

Currently, when overfishing occurs, Management Trigger 1 requires the Management Board to reduce fishing mortality to or below the target level within one year.  But options proposed by the Plan Development Team, which may well appear in the draft Amendment 7, include dragging out the reduction over a two-year period.

An even worse idea, also on the table, would create a trigger that only tripped if a 3-year average of fishing mortality exceeded the threshold; a five-year average was even briefly discussed.  Either option could allow overfishing to occur, and abundance to decline, for two or three years before action is taken or, perhaps worse, allow the fishing mortality rate to flicker around the threshold for an indefinite time, never quite high enough, for long enough, to trigger the 3-year average, but never close to low enough to allow the stock to approach the spawning stock biomass target.

Under such an arrangement, a generation could pass without seeing a fully rebuilt, and fully healthy, striped bass stock.

As bad as that might be, one proposal for Management Trigger 2, which requires rebuilding within ten years if the stock becomes overfished, is far, far worse.  

It would completely remove the Management Board's obligation to rebuild an overfished stock.

In other words:  Congratulations, you won.  The Management Board maintained the status quo biomass reference points last May.  But since we eliminated Management Trigger 2, those reference points now have no meaning.

If such proposal was adopted by the Management Board, it would constitute the ultimate bait-and-switch.

Proposed alternatives to the current Management Trigger 3, which is now tripped when fishing mortality rises above target and biomass falls below target for a specified time, track the changes to Management Trigger 1, with longer rebuilding times and perhaps multi-year averaging before the trigger is tripped, although another alternative would eliminate the trigger completely.

A longer rebuilding time, or multi-year averaging, for this management trigger could almost be justified, as it addresses the fishing mortality target, not overfishing, so the threat to the stock is less dire.  So long as Management Trigger 1 wasn’t changed, and the Management Board was still required to return fishing mortality to target within one year, such change would be marginally tolerable.

At the same time, it’s hard to understand why a responsible Management Board wouldn’t want an effective circuit breaker in place, instead of constantly engaging in crisis management.

The likely Management Trigger 4 options get a little more interesting, because one of the proposals would require the Management Board to implement remedial action if the female spawning stock biomass was below target, and the latest stock assessment projected that the stock would become overfished within three years if no changes were made. 

Such a trigger would actually be somewhat more proactive than the language of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and ManagementAct, which only requires federal fishery managers to implement a rebuildingplan if a stock is projected to become overfished within two years.

So yes, I like that idea.

Unfortunately, another proposals would eliminate Management Trigger 4 altogether, just as an earlier proposal would eliminate Management Trigger 2, and thus make the spawning stock biomass reference points completely irrelevant.

I don’t like that idea at all.

But what I like or dislike isn’t the issue.  What matters are the proposals that appeal to the Management Board.

And quite honestly, I don’t know what those proposals will be.

Given the many Management Board members who spoke out for striped bass conservation in May, the members who were clearly trying to respond to stakeholder comments, the members who seemed clearly concerned with rebuilding and properly managing the stock, I have hopes that the worst of the proposals put on the table last Thursday will fail—if they even make it into the draft Amendment.

On the other hand, I have little doubt that many, if not all, of the Management Board members who have fought for higher landings, and have been obstacles to conservation efforts for the past five or six years—particularly fishery managers from Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey, and some other members of those states' delegations, too—have been actively contacting both the Plan Development Team and their colleagues on the Management Board, doing their best to undo the progress that was made in May.

Thus, I’m reminded of the written comments submitted by one New York angler, who has both a degree in fisheries science and a very clear understanding of the fishery management process.

“It is understood ASMFC is not legally bound to the management and legal standards that one might expect within the Regional Fisheries Management Councils.  There appears to be little appetite to bring this body up to that type of a 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 stop 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.”

Because yes, if the Management Board pulls a bait-and-switch, and instead of taking up the banner of effective striped bass conservation, provides itself with a greater ability to delay, or indefinitely defer, actions need to restore the stock to health, Congress may well decide to completely restructure the ASMFC, so that it works more like a federal fishery management council. 

It would be an action that's long overdue.















Thursday, June 17, 2021


Fishery management bodies, whether on the state, federal, or local level, are supposed to represent the public interest in living marine resources.  Nothing spells out that obligation better than the oath required of all voting members of federal fishery management councils:

“I, [name of person taking oath], as a duly appointed member of a Regional Fishery Management Council established under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, hereby promise to conserve and manage the living marine resources of the United States of America by carrying out the business of the Council for the greatest overall benefit of the Nation.  I recognize my responsibility to serve as a knowledgeable and experienced trustee of the Nation’s marine fisheries resources, being careful to balance competing private and regional interests, and always aware and protective of the public interest in those resources.  I commit myself to uphold the provisions, standards, and requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and other applicable law, and shall conduct myself at all times according to the rules of conduct prescribed by the Secretary of Commerce.  This oath is given freely and without mental reservation or purpose of evasion.  [emphasis added]”

As far as I can determine, no similar oath is required of those who sit on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s various management boards, and while I can’t speak for what other states require, I know that no such oath is required of those appointed to New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council.

Having once held a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, I can say from personal experience that the oath set out above places a heavy burden on Council members.  Managing resources for the greatest overall public benefit, rather than just for personal gain, is a challenging thing to do, because it may well place a Council member in a position of voting against their own interests and desires.  It also places them in a position to be pressured, harangued, and reviled by their peers if they live up to their sworn word, and vote against the interests of their particular sector when such interests are at odds with what's best for the nation as a whole.

Thus, most council members, other than representatives of state and federal agencies, turn out to be oathbreakers who elevate their own and/or their sector’s interests above those of the nation.

It’s no different at the ASMFC or state level, which is why, in the case of any fishery management body, the various commercial and recreational industry organizations try so hard to place their preferred representatives in any open seat.

That probably works out fairly well on the commercial side where, apart from spats over states’ allocations or conflicts over gear types, the votes are going to turn out pretty much the same no matter who is sitting at the table.  With few exceptions, no matter who is casting them, commercial votes will favor the highest possible level of landings, the longest possible rebuilding times, and the fewest possible regulations that might restrict fishing activity.

On the recreational side, things get a little more complicated.

There are a lot of recreational fishermen, some of whom fish primarily for food, some of whom fish only for sport, and most of whom fall somewhere between those extremes.  For them, fishing is an enjoyable hobby that they pursue in their spare time.  As spare time is scarce, and often limited to weekends, private anglers tend to favor longer seasons over higher bag limits, although most probably like a size limit that’s small enough to allow them to take a few fish home.

While some anglers are highly skilled, most are more casual fishermen who trust as much to luck as to skill for angling success.  For their fishing to remain enjoyable, fish must be abundant enough that even a relatively poor angler can catch some from time to time; otherwise, the activity soon loses its appeal.  

As demonstrated by recent public comment on both the proposed Amendment 7 to the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan and comment on the Allocation and Rebuilding Amendment to the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan, anglers tend to favor management measures that lead to greater abundance and the long-term health of fish stocks, even if that means more restrictive regulations and lower landings in the short term.

On most regional fishery management councils, such anglers are lumped together with what the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act defines as the “charter fishing sector,” party and charter boats that venture out on the water not for pleasure, but for pay.  Because a portion of their clientele want to take home as many fish as possible, most for-hire operators are not as supportive of conservation measures as the greater angling community.  

In a 2006 report, Review of Recreational Fisheries Survey Methods, a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that

“The for-hire sector of marine recreational fisheries (i.e., charter, guide, and head boat operations) is more like a commercial sector than it is like the private-angler sector.”

While that observation was made with particular reference to gathering recreational fisheries data, it has much wider application, as a substantial portion of for-hire operators also work as commercial fishermen, either fishing on others’ boats, fishing commercially on their own boats when they don’t have a charter or, in the case of some ports and species, even selling fish caught by their customers.  Like commercial fishermen, for-hire operators typically see larger harvests as good for business, are primarily concerned with short-term economic impacts, and tend to favor high annual catch limits, long rebuilding times, and a light regulatory footprint.

Those differences between private anglers and the for-hire fleet make a big difference when it comes to the fishery management process. 

In the case of most species, private anglers account for the vast majority of fishing trips, and thus generate most of the economic activity, in the recreational fishery.  During the years 2015-2019 (chosen because they represent the most recentdata not affected by COVID-related issues), surf and private boat anglerscombined for more than 99% of all directed recreational bluefish trips and morethan 98% of all directed recreational trips targeting striped bass.

But while private anglers might be responsible for the great majority of recreational fishing trips, their dominance of the fishery is not reflected in the fishery management process, where representatives of the fishing industry control most of the recreational seats. 

On the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, to provide one example, out of the 13 non-governmental Council members, there are five commercial fishermen, four industry members (three from the for-hire fleet, one from angling media), two academics/former fishery managers, 1 representative of a non-governmental organization, and just one private angler.  

With a breakdown like that, it’s hardly surprising that, when bluefish landings needed to be reduced in 2019, the Council cut the bag limit for private anglers to 3 fish, while allowing customers of the for-hire fleet to retain 5 fish per day, giving the for-hires the benefit of sector separation, without burdening them with any of the responsibilities, such as a separate catch limit and separate accountability measures should that catch limit be exceeded.

But the underrepresentation of private anglers extends far beyond the Council itself.  In justifying the special 5-fish bag for customers of for-hire vessels, a Council press release noted that

“Although the Council’s Bluefish Monitoring Committee recommended a coastwide 3-fish bag limit, the majority of comments from the public and Bluefish Advisory Panel (AP) members expressed opposition to this option, noting that it would have severe economic consequences for the for-hire sector…Additionally, AP members and the public emphasized that these proposed reductions come at a challenging time for for-hire stakeholders as they are also facing new restrictions on striped bass, black sea bass, summer flounder, and scup.”

While its true that the Bluefish Advisory Panel did object to reducing the bag limit to just three fish, it’s also true that for-hire representatives outnumber private anglers by at least 2 to 1 on the panel, and so dominate the discussions about management issues.  

The bottom line is that anglers’ concerns are often not heard, and often not heeded, in a management process that is biased toward industry views, in which industry members are less concerned with the greater public interest than in their own.

Yet for anglers to be heard, they must first make the effort to get involved, volunteering to serve on advisory panels and becoming familiar with the management process.  It’s tiring, aggravating, and completely thankless work, that not only pays nothing, but requires the volunteers to give up vacation days, or perhaps a day’s pay, to attend panel meetings, although more and more, such meetings are held via conference calls or in an on-line environment, which substantially reduces the time commitment involved.

Once they familiarize themselves with the process, they need to seek appointment to state advisory panels, to ASMFC advisorfy panels and management boards, and to the regional fishery management councils, when openings become available.  It’s not unusual for state officials to search for intelligent, informed people willing to fill such positions, because too few qualified people actively seek appointment, due to the time commitments and impacts on both family and job.  

When I was on the Mid-Atlantic Council, I had to take an unpaid leave of absence for the 20 or so days that I’d be out of the office each year; while per diem payments for service made up part of that, it didn’t make up for all of the wages that I lost.

It’s a perplexing problem, that might need a legislative solution that compels state governors to nominate persons from the commercial, recreational, and charter fishing sectors for every open council seat.  For a while, Magnuson-Stevens required such diverse nominations, but only for seats on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council; the requirement lapsed nearly a decade ago.

Until things change, and private anglers are provided with representation on fishery management councils that more closely corresponds to their participation in the recreational fishery, expect  management actions to continue to favor the recreational fishing industry, to the disadvantage of not only surf and private boat anglers, but to the fish and to the nation as well.