We’ve all heard the saying, “No pain, no gain,” and in fisheries management, that’s certainly true. The only way to rebuild overfished stocks is to reduce fishing mortality. That means killing fewer fish, and to do that, every fisherman will have to give up something.
As I noted in last Thursday’s edition of One Angler’s Voyage, it’s very likely that, in order to rebuild the striped bass stock by 2029, as the management plan requires and many anglers called for in last spring’s hearings, very restrictive regulations will have to be imposed on the striped bass fishery.
While the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team has clearly stated that the fishing mortality rate that will be needed to rebuild the stock may or may not be lower than the current fishing mortality target, that statement shouldn’t raise false hopes about the measures needed to meet the 2029 deadline. At the August 2019 meeting of the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, Max Appelman, then the Commission’s Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for striped bass, stated that the 18% fishing mortality reduction that Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan was expected to achieve would probably rebuild the striped bass stock by 2033, subject to the usual caution that predicting events so far in the future is always subject to substantial uncertainty.
Given that statement, which was made before New Jersey and Maryland were granted concessions, in the form of “conservation equivalent” management measures, that substantially reduced the likelihood that Addendum VI would achieve its goals, it seems fairly certain that, in order to rebuild the striped bass stock by 2029, both commercial and recreational management measures will have to be significantly more restrictive than those in effect today.
Mr. Appelman’s comments about a 2033 rebuilding date also assumed that there would be average recruitment of young bass into the population during the recruitment period; at least one of the options being considered by the Plan Development Team would assume a low recruitment rate, reflecting the low recruitment observed during most recent years. Such low recruitment assumption could only result in management measures that are even more restrictive than they would have to be under an average recruitment scenario.
While we can’t yet predict all of the rebuilding scenarios will ultimately appear in the Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass that the Management Board ultimately approves and releases for public comment, it is pretty well settled that Option A, which provides for rebuilding by 2029 while assuming average recruitment, and Option B, which maintains the 2029 deadline but assumes low recruitment, will be part of that document. Once the draft amendment is approved for public comment, it will be up to the stakeholders to tell the Management Board exactly what sort of rebuilding plan they want to see.
But before they address the Management Board, stakeholders all need to take a long look into their mirrors, and ask themselves just what sort of sacrifice they’re willing to make in order to rebuild the stock by 2029.
It’s easy to talk about “doing what’s right for the resource,” and “doing whatever is necessary to rebuild the striped bass,” even if that means a 10-year moratorium on all striped bass harvest.
It’s even easier to conserve someone else’s fish, and rebuild the striped bass on the backs of any user group except your own.
That makes it easy for some recreational folks to demand that the commercial fishery be shut down, and for private boat and surf fishermento point fingers at the charter and party boats, and blame them for the striped bass’ problems—even though they account for only a small portion of striped bass fishing mortality, and an even smaller portion of directed striped bass trips.
It's just as easy for a catch-and-release angler to call for more restrictive size limits, that make it harder to keep a bass.
Even the calls for a 10-year moratorium aren’t as altruistic as they might, at first, appear. After all, about 90 percent of all bass caught by anglers are already released, meaning that a viable recreational fishery, and a viable recreational fishing industry, could still be maintained during the moratorium years. On the other hand, the commercial striped bass fishery must harvest fish to survive. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Stripers Forever, which originally proposed such a moratorium last spring, has long tried to outlaw the commercial striped bass fishery. In that light, it’s not hard to view the moratorium proposal as merely a backhanded way to put the commercial bass fishermen out of business, so that anglers could have all the striped bass—and 100 percent of the renewed striped bass harvest—for themselves once any such moratorium finally ended.
So the important question going into the debate isn’t what anglers are willing to force others to give up in order to rebuild the fishery, but what THOSE ANGLERS are willing to surrender in order to have a healthy striped bass stock.
While I agree with those who said that such restrictions were unnecessary, and would probably make not materially affect release mortality, I also feel that anglers’ refusal to make even those simple sacrifices was a public relations mistake that may have caused fishery managers to question anglers’ willingness to accept other measures needed to rebuild the stock. Anyone listening to the October Management Board meeting should have noted that anglers’ opposittion to circle hook rules that might have required them to substitute artificial trailers for authentic pork rind, or forego using eelskin plugs, made a big impression on state fishery managers, who were largely unwilling to even consider other gear restrictions, such as requiring barbless hooks, which might have had a real impact on release mortality, in order to avoid more angler pushback.
More recently, my support for management measures that wouldrequire large bass—say, fish of 40 inches or more—to be released withoutremoving them from the water was criticized, because such requirement could endanger surfcasters who were fishing from exposed positions when waves ran perilously high.
I have no desire to put anyone’s lives or health at risk. But if folks really want to rebuild the striped bass stock, shouldn’t they be willing to forego going fishing on days when conditions don’t allow in-water release?
After all, if someone hauls a big bass onto a jetty, riprap or rocky ledge in order to unhook it, perhaps banging the bass up on the stones along the way, the odds are pretty good that the fish will need some help if it is survive the experience. So, if high surf makes in-water release too dangerous, wouldn’t it also be too dangerous for the angler to crouch at the water’s edge, perhaps for many minutes, to revive the bass before setting it free?
Fishing under conditions too hostile to allow a proper, survivable release seems somehow inconsistent with a desire to quickly and effectively rebuild the striped bass stock.
So what are most anglers willing to give up?
Are they willing to give up season?
Anglers are responsible for most striped bass fishing mortality, accounting for 90 percent of the total in 2017. Recreational release mortality is the largest single component of fishing mortality, comprising 48 percent of such mortality in 2017 and 54 percent in 2020. Thus, any management measure likely to lead to more released bass, and so to increased release mortality, is not going to be attractive to managers.
On the other hand, as has already been discussed by both the Plan Development Team and the Management Board with respect to the pending Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, a closed season, which allows striped bass to be neither harvested nor targeted, would not contribute to release mortality, as there would be no fishing effort to generate releases.
But, while such a season would probably be the best option from the bass’ standpoint, it has been disfavored by most fishery managers for an unfortunate reason: Many fishermen probably won't obey it, and it would become an enforcement nightmare. Anglers would continue fishing for bass while claiming to be targeting bluefish, weakfish, or some other species, and would continue generating continued release mortality. At last October’s Management Board meeting, Michael Armstrong, the Massachusetts fishery manager, noted that
“As long as you have bluefish in the water, you are fishing for striped bass.”
So it appears that, while many anglers may claim to care about striped bass, they may not care enough to stop fishing for them, even if such abstinence is good for the striped bass and required by regulation.
Fishery managers know that quite well.
Hopefully, when the ASMFC’S Striped Bass Technical Committee and Plan Development Team finish their work, the rebuilding proposals will allow a reasonable level of angling, and some retention, too. Hopefully, the rebuilding proposals will be something that anglers can live with. But a six-year rebuilding timeline, that assumes a low-recruitment regime, is almost certainly going to lead to some very strict rules.
So it’s time for anglers to begin to think about what sort of regulations they are willing to live with, and what they are not. It is time for many of them to decide whether they really want the Management Board to do whatever it takes to rebuild the stock by 2029, as so many have said, or whether their words were just bluster.
Because the Plan Development Team seems to be headed in exactly the right direction although, truth be told, we’re not going to know where that direction is likely to take us for a few more weeks. We might be looking at rebuilding measures that are just a little more restrictive than the measures currently in place, or we might be looking at a complete fishery closure.
Right now, there is no way to know for sure.
But this could be one of those times when the old warning, “Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it,” applies.
Personally, I’m willing to stand by the science, the bass, and the 2029 deadline, wherever that stand might lead.
But then again, I was also willing to surrender my pork rind.
What about you?