Thursday, October 21, 2021


I have to admit that I dreaded sitting in on the October 20 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board.

The focus of the meeting was an effort to finalize the Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  Amendment 7 is a big deal because, when it is finished, it could well determine how bass are managed for the next decade or two.  If the meeting went as expected, it would end with the Management Board finalizing the Draft Amendment, and sending it out for public review and comment.

The way the process works is that the Management Board instructs the Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team to meet (which they did multiple times) and, working with the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee, put together a draft amendment.  Once that is done, the Management Board meets to review the draft, and make whatever changes they deem needed before the draft amendment is finally approved and released for comment.

I dreaded the meeting because the ASMFC’s process of developing an amendment to a management plan can often resemble the Paris Peace Talks during the Viet Nam War, where it took ten weeks just to decide on the shape of the table where negotiations would take place.  And like many diplomatic efforts, the amendment process usually features a cast of predictable players who play their predictable roles; I can usually script out the general lines of what many people will say before the meeting convenes.

And when that sort of thing goes on for nearly six hours, sitting through it can get a little painful.

But the October Management Board meeting broke the usual mold, and did so in a good and unexpected way.

It started out with a debate on the triggers for management action, where everyone generally played their parts (later I’ll describe what went on).   But just as the Board was ready to move on to its next topic, Megan Ware, a fishery manager from Maine, asked to address the Board’s Chair. 

And just then, the nature of the meeting was changed, for Ms. Ware made the motion that many of us had been waiting for the past seven years.

“Move to consider a formal rebuilding plan for striped bass in Amendment 7 using methods described under ‘Management Response to Recruitment Trigger’.  Option 1 would be status quo F-target.  Option 2 would establish a F(rebuild) calculated as the F value projected to achieve SSB(rebuild) by 2029 under the assumption of the lower recruitment regime.”

The motion was seconded by New York’s legislative proxy, Capt. John McMurray.  With that motion, the tenor of the Draft Amendment was changed.

Up until then, the Amendment 7 discussion centered on management tools.  What events should trigger a management action?  How can managers protect the 2015s?  How can recreational release mortality be reduced?  Should the use of conservation equivalency be reined in?

What the Amendment 7 never got around to discussing was a management outcome, the actual rebuilding of the already overfished stock, even though many stakeholder comments provided during the preliminary Amendment 7 hearings last spring complained that such rebuilding was badly overdue, a point emphasized by Capt. McMurray after he seconded the motion.

But once Ms. Ware made her motion, rebuilding was finally on the table.  And her motion didn’t merely call for rebuilding.  It called for rebuilding within 10 years of learning that the stock had become overfished, as called for in the current management plan, and also required managers to consider current low, rather than average, recruitment when calculating the appropriate level of fishing mortality.

In short, Ms. Ware called for a rebuilding plan that might actually work.

In doing so, she noted that, in spite of a 10-year rebuilding requirement in the management plan, no formal rebuilding plan had yet been adopted.  She acknowledged that she was concerned about current low striped bass recruitment, and pointed out that delaying rebuilding would only make such rebuilding more difficult, and require more restrictive management measures.

She also said that it was important to signal to the public that there was a rebuilding plan underway.  That’s a signal the public has long been waiting for.

Ms. Ware’s motion received some strong support.

Michael Armstrong, Massachusetts’ fisheries director, immediately stated that

“I think this is necessary and I support it…I think that this is a lot more important than some of the other things that are in this Amendment 7.”

G. Ritchie White, New Hampshire’s governor’s appointee, echoed Mr. Armstrong’s comment, saying

“I strongly support this motion…we certainly don’t want to do [to striped bass] what’s happened to herring,”

a reference to the decline of Atlantic herring stocks due to unaddressed recruitment issues.

Other Management Board members also got behind the motion.  Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fishery manager, was largely supportive. He worried about the timing of the motion, and how it would impact the Amendment 7 process, but admitted that

“we missed the boat a bit”

by not already having a rebuilding plan underway.

But there were also Management Board members who stayed true to their less benevolent roles.

Adam Nowalsky, New Jersey’s legislative proxy, didn’t explicitly oppose the motion, but complained that it “adds complexity” to the draft addendum and that, because the Plan Development Team would have to develop rebuilding measures, would prevent the Management Board from approving the Draft Amendment before its next meeting.  He also said that he didn’t like the two options mentioned in the motion, and would prefer that it just called for rebuilding, which would have meant omitting the provisions that established Frebuild, assumed low recruitment, or set a 2029 rebuilding deadline—the very provisions needed for an effective rebuilding plan.

His New Jersey colleague, governor’s appointee Tom Fote, seemed to suggest that there was no reason to attempt rebuilding, because any such effort was either unnecessary or doomed to fail.  On one hand, he pointed to the lack of a stock/recruitment relationship with striped bass—that is, recruitment is largely unrelated to the size of the spawning stock—and noted that a low spawning stock biomass could still result in high recruitment, which by implication made a rebuilding plan unnecessary.  On the other hand, he argued that in the case of the collapsed winter flounder and depleted weakfish stock, landings had been held at low levels for years, without any improvement in stock status.

Michael Luisi, the Maryland fishery manager, said that while he agreed with most of the comments made, the PDT would have to do additional work on the rebuilding plan, and perhaps include other options, specifically mentioning other rebuilding timeframes.  Given Mr. Luisi’s track record on the Management Board, it can be safely assumed that when he was talking about changing the rebuilding timeframe, he wasn’t planning to rebuild the stock any sooner than 2029…

David Borden, Chair of the Management Board and Rhode Island’s governor’s appointee, noted that most of the comments supported the motion, although some of the support was qualified.  He also noted that there were no issues created if adding the rebuilding plan to the draft amendment caused final approval to be delayed until May or even August of next year; given that the measures wouldn’t be implemented until 2023, that still gave everyone plenty of time to prepare.

Mr. Borden then called for a motion to postpone the vote on rebuilding until the end of the meeting, so that the Board could get back to the draft amendment prepared by the Plan Development Team.

And so the long, slow slog began again.

The most important issue discussed at the meeting, other than the rebuilding plan, was probably the management triggers, as they were the only things being discussed that could still send a reasonably good amendment off the rails.  Although the discussion actually took place before Ms. Ware made her motion, I chose not to address it until now, in order to keep all of the Plan Development Team’s proposals in the same place.

Management triggers are important because they determine if and when the Management Board has to respond to threats to the stock.  Delaying such response could prevent false alarms, when uncertain data creates only the appearance of a threat, but it also could allow the biomass to continue to deteriorate in the face of a continuing problem.  Some of the proposed, new management triggers would allow a lot more delay.

Capt. McMurray set the stage well at the beginning of the discussion, when observed that

“the public overwhelmingly supports less delay, not more.”

He noted that despite all the seeming worry about triggers forcing too many management changes, in all of the time since Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was adopted in 2003, there were only two substantial changes to the management measures.  One occurred after the 2013 benchmark stock assessment revealed a declining stock and increased fishing mortality, the other occurred after the 2019 stock assessment informed the Management Board that such trends had not been arrested, and the stock had both become overfished and subject to overfishing.

Two changes over the course of 18 years hardly provides grounds to claim that the management triggers cause too much instability.

Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fishery manager, softly echoed Capt. McMurray’s comments when he requested the removal of proposed management triggers that might give then impression that the Management Board was trying to “wiggle out” from having to take needed action.

Even so, only some of the worst triggers were removed.  The proposal that would have given the Management Board three years, rather than one, to rebuild an overfished stock was deleted, but a proposal to expand rebuilding from one year to two remains.  Another trigger that would only require the Management Board to take action of the average fishing mortality over five years exceeded the target level was also excised, as was one that would delay action until both fishing mortality exceeded its target and spawning stock biomass fell below target for two consecutive years.

There are also some proposals that could delay management response to an overfished stock.  A proposal to require either a two- or three-year average spawning stock biomass confirming that the stock is overfished before taking action was added.  A good Plan Development Team proposal, which would have required rebuilding if a stock assessment found at least a 50% probability that striped bass would become overfished within three years, was removed.

But one place where the Plan Development Team proposals were all significant improvements was the recruitment trigger.  The current recruitment trigger only calls for management action in the event that the juvenile abundance index for a particular spawning area fell into the lower 25% of all such values for three consecutive years.  In the past 60-plus years, the Maryland juvenile abundance index would only have tripped that trigger once; even the current spate of low recruitment, that returned Maryland JAIs of 3.37, 2.48, and 3.20 for 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively, versus a long-term average of 11.4, wasn’t enough to trip the recruitment trigger—and even if it had, the Management Board wouldn’t be required to anything more than decide whether any action was needed.

The proposals put forward by the Plan Development Team would place emphasis on the Maryland juvenile abundance index, which is closely coordinated with coastwide recruitment of year-old striped bass, and would shorten the time series, so that the long low-recruitment period during the stock collapse would not be included, and/or gauge recruitment failure by whether a three-year average of the abundance index, rather than the stand-alone index for each of three consecutive years, fell into the bottom 25% of the historical values.

And, should such recruitment failure occur, the PDT proposals would require the Management Board to take specified remedial actions, rather than providing them the choice between acting or doing nothing at all.

That’s a big improvement over the current management plan; it’s just too bad that the final management trigger proposals would hardwire excuses for not taking action when a trigger is tripped into the management plan, and give the Management Board formal excuse for delay.  For as Capt. McMurray noted, stakeholders have already given notice that they want to see less delay in responding to possible threats to the stock, not more inaction.

The next Plan Development Team proposals addressed dealt with protecting the 2015 year class. 

Given that it may be very difficult to rebuild the stock by 2029 if much of that year class is lost, such protections were generally seen as important to the future of the striped bass.  However, after the Technical Committee reviewed the matter, it found that none of the proposed alternative slot limits or minimum sizes would increase the spawning stock biomass by more than about 4 percent. 

It turns out that overall effort and fishing mortality have much more impact on the stock than would measures that protect a particular year class.  In calculating the impact of management measures, managers assume that angling effort would remain constant, and that such effort, at least from anglers intending to harvest a bass, would merely target a different, unprotected segment of the population.

The only time that wouldn’t apply would be if the proposed recreational moratorium on harvest was implemented.  In that case, effort couldn’t shift to an unprotected portion of the stock, and managers have no way of knowing how many anglers would just stop fishing for bass, and so reduce fishing mortality, and how many would switch from some catch-and-keep to all catch-and-release, and so merely exchange harvest mortality for an unquantified, if lower, level of release mortality.

In the end, that didn’t matter, because no one was enthusiastic about supporting a moratorium on recreational landings that would allow the commercial harvest to continue unabated; the moratorium proposal was ultimately removed from the draft amendment.

That took the Management Board to one of the more controversial aspects of the draft amendment, efforts to reduce recreational release mortality, either through a closed season where even targeting bass was not allowed, or through certain gear restrictions.

There were two clear and completely opposed views on this issue.

The first, and what I believe is the far better view, was expressed by Dr. Davis, who suggested that the emphasis on release mortality represented

“an outdated view of the fishery,”

which is primarily recreational in nature.  He asked why the Management Board should remove the recreational opportunity and economic benefits that the current fishery, releases included, provide.

Mr. Luisi, unsurprisingly, took the opposite view, saying that restrictions that reduce recreational releases represent a new way of thinking of and approaching fishing mortality.  He stated that failing to reduce recreational fishing effort, and so recreational releases and release mortality

“would go against everything I believe in,”

and given how ardently he has always pressed for increased harvest, particularly by the charter and commercial fleets, I certainly suspect that is true.

After other, primarily New England, representatives emphasized the hardships that a two-week midsummer prohibition on even targeting bass would bring, the Management Board agreed to remove such proposal from the draft amendment, although a proposal that would require state-specific closures, at any time during then year when substantial fishing took place, remained in for further consideration.  Also left in was a proposal that called for spawning season closures, something that seemed to have the broadest acceptance.

The Management Board also considered gear restrictions.  It left in a proposal that would, if adopted, make gaffing bass illegal, much to the consternation of Mr. Nowalsky, who made a long and impassioned plea extolling the benefits of gaff-and-release, claiming that it could be done in ways that didn’t hurt the fish.  His comments didn’t convince New York fishery manager John Manascalco, who suggested that poking holes in a bass with a gaff was probably unlikely to lead to less release mortality.  However, potential bans on treble hooks, barbed hooks, and wire line trolling were removed.

The Management Board also retained a provision that would require anglers to release all fish caught on non-compliant gear, a measure that now seems irrelevant to the proposals in Amendment 7, but would still apply to anglers who failed to use circle hooks when fishing with bait.

And with that, the Management Board came to the final issue of conservation equivalency, and how to better prevent its abuse.  A number of proposals that would do things such as restrict the use of conservation equivalency when the stock was overfished or experiencing overfishing, or require a minimum level of precision in state landings data, or impose an added buffer to state conservation equivalency measures in order to account for uncertainty in the data were kept in the draft amendment.

Unfortunately, a proposal to completely prohibit the use of conservation equivalency was challenged, not surprisingly by representatives from states such as New Jersey that habitually abuse the process.  While other Management Board members supported its retention, such proposal was ultimately deleted from the draft.

With all of the Plan Development Team’s proposals addressed, Mr. Borden put Ms. Ware’s rebuilding plan motion back on the floor.  Once again, the usual suspects raised their objections. 

Mr. Luisi stated that he “absolutely” supported rebuilding, but complained that the motion as written lacked sufficient flexibility and “handcuffs” the Plan Development Team.  Mr. Nowalsky had other, but seemingly similar complaints.

Ms. Ware, trying to facilitate the discussion, reworded her motion to read

“Move to task the PDT to develop a formal rebuilding plan for striped bass in Amendment 7 using methods described under ‘Management Response to Recruitment Trigger”.  Options could include a status quo F-target and another option that would establish a F(rebuild) calculated as the F value projected to achieve SSB(rebuild) no later than 2029 under the assumption of the lower recruitment regime.”

The amended motion was both better and worse.  It clarified that the Plan Development Team was to “develop,” not merely “consider,” a rebuilding plan, and opened the possibility of a plan that would rebuild the stock before 2029.  On the other hand, the “Options could include [emphasis added]” language opens the door to additional options that, contrary to the clear language of the management plan, extended rebuilding beyond 2029, assumed average recruitment, or otherwise made rebuilding less likely to succeed.

But we’ll fight those battles in the coming months.  Right now, what really matters is that, for the first time, the Management Board is moving forward with a rebuilding plan.  As Mr. Armstrong suggested, that is something much more important than most of the items being contemplated in the draft amendment.

It’s something that we can point to and say “Finally, the real work is being done.”





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