Sunday, January 30, 2022


Everything has to eat something.

Even a single-celled plant, dependent largely on sunlight, needs nitrates, phosphates, and other chemicals to survive.  While that might not quite constitute eating, it makes the key point:  No form of life is wholly self-contained.

When dealing with animals, there is no ambiguity.  Some eat plants, some eat other animals, some devour a little of both.  In the ocean, the notion that big fish eat smaller fish is generally true, although something like a basking shark will always show up to create an exception.  But in the ocean, where single-celled life shares the water with things like the great whales, there is one category of life that ties the food web together, and links drifting plankton to the largest free-swimming creatures on Earth—the forage fish.

“Forage fish” is not an easy term to define.

In the broadest sense, it is any fish that is preyed upon by another animal; and in that context, even the word “fish” isn’t limited to what most people think of when they hear that word—aquatic vertebrates that breathe through gills and lack limbs with any sort of digits—but is better defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act as

“finfish, mollusks, crustaceans, and all other forms of marine animal and plant life other than marine mammals and birds.”

Thus, we see the Omnibus Unmanaged Forage Amendment, adopted by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in 2016, include protections not only for finfish such as anchovies, silversides, and halfbeaks, but also for some species of squid, and for krill, copepods, and four other types of marine crustacean.

Forage fish are such an important component of the marine ecosystem that there is broad consensus that they need to be managed for their ecosystem, rather than their economic, values, although some well-known and respected biologists aren’t completely on board with that idea.  But in the fish-eat-fish ocean, where the broad definition of “forage fish” could include the yellowfin tuna preyed on by blue marlin as well as the menhaden engulfed by humpback whales, the first step in the management process probably requires a narrower, more workable definition of just what a “forage fish” is.

A bill currently making its way through Congress, the Forage Fish Conservation Act, (S. 1484/H.R. 5770) sponsored by Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) in the Senate and Debbie Dingell (D-MI-12) in the House of Representatives, tries to do that, by providing that

“…the Secretary [of Commerce] shall issue a definition of the term ‘forage fish’ for the purposes of this Act.  In defining such term, the Secretary shall determine factors including whether a species covered by such definition, throughout such species lifecycle, is at a low trophic level; is generally small- to intermediate-sized; occurs in schools or other dense aggregations; contributes significantly to the diets of other fish, marine mammals, or birds; and serves as a conduit for energy transfer to a species at a higher trophic level.  [internal formatting omitted]”

Effectively, the legislation allows Congress to punt on deciding just what a “forage fish” might be, and leaves the final decision up to an agency that has greater expertise in the field, while providing some general guidelines.  

The language also seems to suggest that the agency designate which species constitute “forage fish,” although that designation could presumably be done not only at the species, but also at the genus or even order level (e.g., by designating the order Clupeiformes as forage fish, the agency could, with one swipe of the pen, include all of the herrings and anchovies within such), in order to achieve some level of bureaucratic efficiency.  It’s not an unreasonable approach, although it does leave some questions unanswered.

Perhaps the biggest of those unanswered questions is what would be done about fish that otherwise meet the guidelines included in the legislation, but which are already subject to a fishery management plan which emphasizes economic benefits and single-stock sustainability, rather than a species’ ecological role.

It’s probably significant that, in creating its omnibus amendment, the Mid-Atlantic Council limited the amendment’s reach to unmanaged forage, which didn’t already support a significant commercial fishery.  As the amendment was being drafted, significant controversy arose over whether chub mackerel, a forage species that was currently unmanaged, but was already supporting a new and growing commercial fishery, should be included in the unmanaged forage amendment. 

The final compromise was to leave it in the amendment but, instead of limiting possession to 1,700 pounds per trip, as was true of all of the other included forage species, to permit fishermen to land 40,000 pounds of chub mackerel per trip, subject to a 2.86 million pound annual limit, until such time as the species could be included in the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan.  The amendment to do so was approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2020, and chub mackerel are no longer deemed to be an unmanaged forage species.

Yet fish still eat them.  Although a recent study shows them to be a minor part of the diets oftuna and billfish in the mid-Atlantic region, anecdotal evidence suggests that they have become important forage for coastal sharks, and particularly the common thresher, in the upper mid-Atlantic, but no research confirming that role has yet been done.

More recently, there has been interest in creating another fishery for an unmanaged forage species in the mid-Atlantic, the threadfin herring.  New Jersey-based Lund’s Fisheries has proposed that NMFS issue it an exempted fishing permit, that would allow Lund’s to escape the 1,700 pound trip limit currently applicable to the species, and instead allow it to land in the neighborhood of 80,000 to 100,000 pounds of thread herring per trip, and 6,600,000 pounds of thread herring in the exempted fishery’s first year.

Such application effectively renders the protections for unmanaged forage provided in the Mid-Atlantic Council’s amendment meaningless, so long as existing law allows exempted fishing permits to be issued.

So the relevant question, so far as the Forage Fish Conservation Act is concerned, is whether the law intends that the Secretary of Commerce exempt forage species that do, or may in the immediate future, support significant fisheries from “forage fish” designation, and whether the Secretary would be empowered to remove species from the forage fish list should new fisheries emerge.

After all, some already-managed fish, such as Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, butterfish, and both Ilex and longfin squid support significant commercial fisheries, but are also important forage species.  Atlantic herring and Atlantic mackerel are,in addition, both overfished, and so unable to provide their full benefits to either the ecosystem or to the fisheries that pursue them.  

Should forage fish protections extend to such species or, regardless of their role in the food web, should they remain subject to their traditional, fishery-oriented management plans?

The legislation pending in Congress seems to include at least some species currently subject to a management plan, as it defines “forage fish” not only as any species designated by the Secretary (in actuality, by NMFS), as discussed above, but also as,

“with respect to a species in a fishery managed pursuant to a fishery management plan or plan amendment that is approved by the Secretary…any species identified in such plan as a forage fish.”

Such definition, should it become law, could lead to strange outcomes.  Within just the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan, only butterfish would be clearly be eligible for forage fish treatment, as the original butterfish management plan, adopted in 1978, states that such plan

“is designed to optimize long-term yield recognizing the importance of butterfish as a forage species and thereby contributing to the overall productivity of the ecosystem.  [emphasis added]”

Amendment 5 to the fishery management plan makes tangential reference to squid as a forage species, saying that

“squid provide forage for several important recreational species, including striped bass, bluefish, flounder, and grey trout,”

although whether that would be enough to meet the definition of “forage fish” under the proposed law would probably be an issue decided by the courts.  A similar reference in Amendment 11 mentions northern gannets feeding on mackerel and squid.  However, neither amendment used language as unambiguous as that in the butterfish management plan with respect to either Atlantic mackerel or Ilex and longfin squid.

Amendment 20 did clearly state that

“chub mackerel are considered a forage species due to their schooling behavior and relatively small size.  They are both a forage species and a predator of other forage species.”

Yet that seemingly clear language was qualified by a statement that

“their role as prey for any predators in this region cannot be accurately quantified with the currently available data,”

and given the outcome of the recent study referenced above, which found that chub mackerel are not an important prey species for some of the most important pelagic finfish, it’s not clear that the amendment’s designation of chub mackerel as a forage fish would stand.

Thus, the debate over forage fish, and whether they should be managed primarily for their role in the ecosystem, or for their economic utility, continues. 

The Mid-Atlantic Council seemed to answer that question in 2016, when it adopted its unmanaged forage amendment, which seemed to prevent the creation of new fisheries until the protection of forage species’ ecosystem roles were assured.  But the simple expedient of obtaining an exempted fishing permit allows fishermen to circumvent the intent of the amendment, and renders its value moot.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission seemed to answer the question, at least with respect to Atlantic menhaden, at its August 2020 meeting, when it adopted biological reference points based on menhaden’s role as a forage fish.  Yet just two months later, at the ASMFC’s October meeting, the Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board set catch limits for 2021 and 2022 that were likely to exceed the fishing mortality target in both years, casting doubt on its commitment upholding the biological reference points when economic considerations intervene.

The Forage Fish Conservation Act, if passed and signed into law, would represent a step forward in forage fish management.  Yet it, too, fails to provide a clear answer of what must take priority, when ecosystem and economic concerns collide.

Thus, while effective forage fish management may be an important aspect of maintaining healthy, fully-functional coastal ecosystems, given the competing considerations, it will probably me a long time, if ever, before such forage fish management becomes commonplace.


Thursday, January 27, 2022


I’ll begin this essay by making this clear:  I am not a scientist, and I am not a statistician.  My undergraduate degrees are in English and history, my graduate degree is in law.  Thus, when I need any information on science or stats, I do what anyone with any sense would do:  I rely on someone who’s trained in the relevant field.

Thus, I was very interested in the presentation that New Jersey fishery scientist Jeff Brust made to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board last Tuesday. 

The primary issue was whether the Marine Recreational Information Program data supported the 28% reduction in recreational black seabass landings adopted by the Management Board and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery ManagementCouncil at their joint meeting last December, once some anomalous estimates were taken into account.  Mr. Brust’s explained why such 28% reduction was probably too high, doing so in a manner that was clear and understandable to persons who, like me, have no formal training in statistics or related fields.

It was a good example of how scientists ought to deal with iffy data, and demonstrated how such data ought to be addressed not only in the case of black sea bass, but other recreational fisheries.

Mr. Brust began by reporting that data for black sea bass landings in Wave 5—September and October—had been released, which indicated that landings were less than originally predicted by Council staff.  While that new data didn’t directly bear on his core presentation, it was enough to reduce the needed landings reduction from 28% to 24.4%.

He then went on to provide examples of some of the anomalous data that has cropped up in the black sea bass harvest estimates, citing what seemed to be unreasonably low Massachusetts private boat landings in 2021 and New Jersey private boat landings in 2019, along with what seemed to be unreasonably high Connecticut party boat landings in 2019 and Virginia private boat landings last year.

Error, he pointed out, can be in either direction; data outliers can be both well below or well above the expected values.  While some critics of the management system are only quick to point out what they claim are overestimates of recreational landings, Mr. Brust described an approach that would treat underestimates and overestimates in the same manner.

He called it a “modified Thompson’s tau analysis.”  I had no idea what that meanut, but the important thing isn’t what Mr. Brust’s approach was called, or even the particulars of how it works, but what it can accomplish, which is to identify data outliers, and nothing more. 

Such outliers can result from a few different causes, with the most likely being small sample size; the accuracy of the Marine Recreational Information Program’s estimates increases with the number of anglers surveyed, so when few anglers are surveyed in a state, during a particular 2-month “wave,” and/or for a particular mode of fishing, the chances of an anomalous result increase substantially.  Although the Program’s administrators do their best to collect high-quality data, the on-the-ground reality is that some outliers will always occur.

According to Mr. Brust, the Thompson's tau alalysis can be calibrated to identify data with an 80%, 90%, or 95% probability of being outliers; as mentioned earlier, both unusually high and unusually low data would be identified.

The number of outliers in the data varies from year to year, from wave to wave, and from mode to mode; there is no clear trend, although anomalously low estimates seem to outnumber the high ones.  Thus, in the case of black sea bass for the years 2018 through 2021, there were 483 separate estimates, broken down by year, state, 2-month wave, and mode.  Of those 483 estimates, 53—about 11%--were identified as outliers.  35 were identified as anomalously low, and only 18 as anomalously high. 

Once the outliers are identified, fishery managers will still have to decide how to deal with them.  They could retain such outliers in the data series, remove them, or replace them with an alternative value, provided that the method used to determine such alternative value was both objective and statistically valid.  One possible replacement approach would use the next-closest value in the data set (i.e., if an estimate was anomalously high, it could be replaced with the next-highest value in the data set, while if it was anomalously low it might be replaced with the next-lowest value), although other replacement approaches are also possible.

The percent reduction theoretically needed to keep recreational black sea bass landings at or below the harvest limit will depend on the approach ultimately selected by fishery managers.  Mr. Brust calculated results for 19 different approaches, including doing nothing other than incorporating the new Wave 5 data into Council staff’s original calculation, which returned values for the required reduction that ranged from about 18% to roughly 23.5%, not including the 24.4% required reduction that resulted from the updated Wave 5 information.  Nine of the approaches resulted in a cluster of calculated reductions just above and below 21%, but whether or not that will ultimately be the reduction adopted by the Council and Management Board, when they meet again on February 8, will depend on the way that they decide to deal with the outliers.

Although all of the approaches used in the presentation resulted in an indicated landings reduction below the previously established 28%, it’s important to note that reductions are not a foregone conclusion of using the approach presented by Mr. Brust.  The black sea bass data for 2018 contained enough anomalously low estimates that multiple approaches to adjusting the outliers all resulted in higher estimates of actual landings.

However, over the long run, reductions in annual estimates will probably outnumber such increases, if only because there is no theoretical limit on the potential magnitude of anomalously high estimates, while anomalously low estimates will always have a lower limit, for they can never fall below zero. 

That can easily be illustrated by looking at Wave 6 (November-December) private boat black sea bass landings in New York for the years 2011 through 2016, a time series selected because the 2016 landings represented one of the largest outliers faced by black sea bass managers.  

Landings estimates during those years ranged between 6,702 fish in 2014 to 1,136,275 in 2016, with 122,342 landed in 2011, 96,323 in 2012, and 32, 417 in 2015 (because of Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy’s impacts in 2012, that year isn’t included).  The million-plus fish landed in 2016 is clearly an outlier; the 6,700 fish landed in 2014 might be an outlier, too, depending on how selective managers opted to be when defining anomalous estimates.  

The 2016 landings are a full order of magnitude, and over one million fish, higher than the next-highest year’s landings; given the numbers involved, it would be impossible to see a similar variation from the norm on the low side.  But in any given set of data, as was the case for black sea bass in 2018, underestimates may very possibly occur.

The bottom line is that the approach presented by Mr. Brust provides a realistic, statistically valid way to deal with anomalous fisheries data, and better tune management measures to what is actually going on in the recreational fishery.

Thus, the only jarring comment at the meeting came after Mr. Brust was done, when someone noted that the approach, however valuable, would probably not be used once the so-called “Control Rule” approach to managementmeasures, included in the so-called “Recreational Reform Initiative,” isadopted, probably for the 2023 season.

It’s difficult to understand why a management body might choose to displace the elegant, statistically defensible approach to recreational fishery data provided by Mr. Brust, and replace it with what, at least at this time, appears to be a far cruder approach that employs a set of pre-ordainedmeasures, largely decoupled from actual recreational landings, ignores changesin angler effort, and fails to hold recreational fishermen accountable forexceeding their harvest limit.

Perhaps such “recreational reform” will have been refined by the time it goes into effect, and will prove to be a viable approach to managing recreational fisheries, which will not cause harm to fish stocks.  Yet, at this point, it seems a shame to make such a radical and potentially perilous change, when approaches such as that outlined last Tuesday are already available, provide managers with a workmanlike way to address iffy data, and still leave recreational limits in place to safeguard the health of the resource.

Sunday, January 23, 2022


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people to freely assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Those are a lot of freedoms to pack into a single sentence, and far too many to discuss in a single essay, but that’s not a problem, given that the freedoms that I planned to talk about today are the freedom of speech and, in that context, freedom of the press.

I view those as the bedrock on which the other freedoms are built, since a government that can shelter itself from criticism, and can make such criticism a crime, or at least subject to severe civil penalty, is a government that can, for the most part, also shelter itself from accountability.

A free press, in all of its messy and undisciplined glory, is the beating heart of a free state.

The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the important connection between free speech, a free press, and public participation in the governing process.  Its 1957 decision in Roth v. United States noted that the First Amendment’s free speech protection

“was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people,”

while its older, 1931 decision in Stromberg v. California stated that

“The maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes may be made by lawful means, an opportunity essential to the security of the Republic, is a fundamental principle of our constitutional system.”

Recognizing that editorial passions can sometimes run high, and that the language used in some publications can trend toward lurid purple prose, the Supreme Court observed, in its 1941 decision, Bridges v. California, that intemperate speech is also protected, as it

“is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.”

Given that background, when deciding the landmark case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964, that court recognized the

“profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,”

and found that

“The constitutional guarantees require…a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Thus, the court set an appropriately high bar, to best guarantee the press’ ability to investigate, report on, and comment on government actions, to shine bright sunlight into the darkest corners of the bureaucracy and so keep the public fully informed on what is going on.

Freedom of the press is an important right, guaranteed by the nation’s highest court.  But what is equally important, if the public is to be fully informed, is that the press live up to its obligation to accurately report what’s going on, and not shelter behind the First Amendment’s shield while intentionally or carelessly perverting the public’s perception of events.

Such obligation, which cannot and should not be codified, is frequently ignored by today’s media, and probably nowhere more often than in the angling press, where editorial efforts to undermine the federal fishery management system, disguised as editorials or even, sometimes, as objective reporting, are commonly seen.

I wrote about that a few years ago, describing not only how editorials in the saltwater angling press are often slanted against the fishery management system, in order to please advertisers who want to see laxer management approaches that, they believe, will lead to higher short-term sales, but how one of those advertisers once sent me a message that effectively threatened that, if I wanted to continue to write for advertiser-supported publications, I’d better not take positions that displeased the recreational fishing industry.

But I’m raising the issue again, for about a week ago, I came across an article in a Delaware newspaper that was so dismayingly filled with unjustified, and uninformed, vitriol that a friend all the way down in the Gulf of Mexico asked if I had seen it.

It was that bad.

The title, “Bureaucrats are ruining the sport of fishing,” should have let me know what was coming, although that title was broad enough that it could have addressed a host of issues, from the ASMFC's failure to rebuild the striped bass stock to restrictions on fishing from public beaches.  But once I read the first paragraph, it became clear that the article was just another one of those 98% fact-free diatribes that appear all too often in the sporting press.

“I know some of you will read this just until I explain how our fishing regulations work, and then your eyes will glaze over and you will move on to the classified ads.  Please don’t do that, especially if you are a saltwater fisherman.  Our sport is in jeopardy of being ruined by a bunch of bureaucrats who have never caught a saltwater fish and have only seen them in photos.  They are using a set of numbers developed by a fatally flawed system known as the Marine Recreational Information Program or MRIP.”

It's hard to count all the misinformation in that single paragraph, but it’s easy to discern the author’s intent.  Everything that follows will be just another rant that fishery managers’ data is bad, fishery managers aren’t fishermen and don’t know what they’re talking about, and that the data-gathering process—MRIP—is unreliable.  Allegations will be strewn hither and yon, while supporting proof will not be found.

Even so, that sort of rant can cause real harm, when people believe the writers’ unfounded claims and lose faith in the management process.

In fact, the writers’ claims, which continue throughout the piece, aren’t merely unfounded, ut demonstrably wrong.

Even the author's basic premise, that the sport of saltwater angling “is in jeopardy of being ruined” by the regulatory proposal to reduce black sea bass landings by 28 percent, is way, way over the top.  

Right now, Delaware anglers may retain 15 black sea bass each day, with a minimum size of 12 ½ inches and a season that runs from May 15-December 31.  As a recreational fisherman in New York, I’m fishing on a 3-fsh bag limit (7 after September 1), a 15-inch size limit and a season that doesn’t open until June 23.  The regulations in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, although slightly different, average out to be much the same.  So pardon me if I don’t believe that cutting Delaware’s bag, even by half a dozen or so fish, and/or adding an inch to its size limit, constitutes “ruining” the sport.  Especially when the rules for summer flounder will probably be eased this season.  And let’s not forget that, thanks to the same “bureaucrats” that the writer derides, beginning in 2023 recreational fishermen in Delaware, and everywhere else in the mid-Atlantic and New England, will be getting a larger share of the black sea bass, scup, and summer flounder catch than they did before.

That hardly sounds ruinous to me, but to move on:

 The Marine Recreational Information Program is not“fatally flawed.” That is a phrase originally leveled at MRIP's predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, by the Chair of a National Academy of Sciences panel reviewing the earlier program.  Criticisms of such program may be found in the National Academies Press’ 2006 publication, Review of Recreational Fisheries Survey Methods. 

The Marine Recreational Information Program, on the other hand, received a generally favorable review from another National Academy of Sciences panel in 2017, which is available as the Review of the Marine Recreational Information Program (also published by the National Academies Press, with text available online).  The phrase “fatally flawed” has only been applied to MRIP by a handful of disgruntled outdoor writers; persons capable of understanding the National Academy’s 2017 report would never commit such an error.

Thus, when that same Delaware author makes comments such as

“if NMFS used this data to indicate if the fish population were going up or down, that would be bad enough, but no, they use their figures as if they were an actual count of the number of fish recreational fishermen caught during a certain time period,”


“when figuring out the sea bass recreational quota, which they call the Total Allowable Landings, the fish counters took the bad data from the new MRIP and applied even worse data from the old MRIP, and decided that recreational fishermen had overfished their quota and had to pay it back by giving up a 28 percent decrease in 2022,”

he not only demonstrates his lack of understanding about how the management process works (e.g., averaging recreational landings for three consecutive years did show that anglers exceeded the average annual catch limit for that period, triggering accountability measures, but those measures did not require anglers to “pay it back” with a 28 percent reduction; instead, the reduction was simply needed to keep anglers from overfishing in 2022, which was all that the accountability measures required) but, far worse, misled his readers into believing that there were real problems with both MRIP and the management process, undoubtedly causing some of them to unjustifiably lose faith in federal fishery managers.

The Supreme Court has said on multiple occasions that he has a First Amendment right to do just that.  In discussing federal fishery management policy, he has the right to be vehement, caustic, unpleasant—and wrong. 

The article in question checked off all of those blocks.

But there is something that ought to accompany rights, although in today’s age, it too seldom does.

That thing is responsibility.

In the fisheries arena, many anglers, unfamiliar with the fishery management process, rely on the angling press to lead the way.  When editors and writers fail to do so—when instead of doing the research and telling the truth, even if that truth is presented in a somewhat slanted way they spread misdirection and falsehood--in order to push their own views, or those of their advertisers, on trusting readers, they do a disservice to both their readers and to the First Amendment, which should promote a vigorous, informed discussion of pending issues.

As someone who was first published in the angling press nearly 50 years ago, and has been involved in public fisheries debates for about as long, I believe that it is good when people dissent, and healthy when people disagree.

But I also believe that integrity matters, and that it is detestable for anyone to hide behind the First Amendment’s shield, and intentionally, or ignorantly, mislead others.

Yet in the angling press, the detestable has become, far too often, routine.

Thursday, January 20, 2022


Today’s edition of One Angler’s Voyage represents the last part in a three-part series describing the latest version of the Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will review, possibly amend, and hopefully release for public comment when they meet next Wednesday afternoon.

The first two parts of the series addressed possible changes to the triggers for management action, special protections for the 2015 year class, and stock rebuilding, issues that could directly impact the ASMFC’s ability to rebuild the striped bass stock and keep it healthy in the long term.  Today, I look at two other issues that, while not necessarily critical to the long-term health of the stock, could do some real harm to both the stock and to the recreational striped bass fishery if the Management Board gets them wrong.

Recreational release mortality

The Management Board uttered what really should have been the last word on recreational release mortality when it issued the Public Information Document to Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass a little less than a year ago.  Such Public Information Document unequivocally stated

“Recreational release mortality constitutes such a large component of annual fishing mortality because the striped bass fishery is predominantly recreational and an overwhelming majority of the catch is released alive.  The source of mortality does not matter to the health of the stock, as long as the overall fishing mortality is below the threshold.  [emphasis added]”

Such statement stands in sharp contrast to the comments of several members of the Management Board who, when participating in the so-called Striped Bass Work Group prior to the creation of the Public Information Document, reportedly stated 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.”

The Work Group’s report to the Management Board further noted that

“Many [Work Group] members pointed to the fact that recreational discards accounted for just under 50% as a basis for the critical need to address this issue.  Others noted that, particularly in states with primarily catch and release fisheries, the Board is running out of ways to control removals in the fishery.”

When one stops to think about those statements, they don’t make too much sense.  True, the last benchmark stock assessment found that recreational release mortality accounted for 48% of all striped bass fishing mortality.  But it also found that landings, commercial (8%) and recreational (42%) combined, accounted for fully 50% of fishing mortality, yet no one is complaining that there is a “critical need” to approach the landings issue, even though such landings kill more bass than recreational releases do.

Similarly, if a state has a “primarily catch and release” fishery, controlling removals by further restricting landings would appear to be a very logical and doable approach.”

After all, promoting catch and release fisheries is hardly a novel approach to management.  Many fisheries, including those for sailfish and marlin, permit, and freshwater fish such as muskellunge, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and wild trout, are managed as primarily catch and release fisheries, where landings occur, but are not the primary focus of fishery managers.  

It’s not unreasonable to add striped bass to the list of fish managed in that manner even though, in such fisheries, release mortality may be the primary cause of removals.

Unfortunately, most saltwater fisheries are plagued by an old and outdated paradigm that views yield, measured in dead fish, as the primary goal, and views any fish that dies of old age as wasted.  The concept of a fishery that provides its greatest social and economic benefits when it is managed for recreational values such as abundance and the maintenance of older, larger fish in the population is anathema to those still committed to the management strategies of the previous century.

An exchange that occurred at the October 2021 Management Board meeting clearly revealed that clash of philosophies, as Dr. Justin Davis, a Connecticut fishery manager who often represents a more enlightened approach to fishery management, observed that efforts to quell the catch and release fishery were

“maybe an outdated or inaccurate sort of idea of like, what do we want out of this fishery?  I mean I think this is a fishery that is primarily recreational.  The benefit we want from this fishery is opportunity for people to go fishing, which in turn provides economic benefits to society, because people are going fishing and spending money to do it.

“I don’t know why we would want to take opportunity to fish away from people, without a clear idea of exactly what we’re getting from it…  [emphasis added]”

Not surprisingly, Dr. Davis’ view was contested by Michael Luisi, the Maryland fishery manager who, in response to Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan, shut down his state’s early spring catch and release fishery in order to convert the questionable reduction in release mortality there into an extra dead fish for passengers on Chesapeake Bay charter boats, who responded to Dr. Davis by saying

“I’m of the complete opposite opinion…The one thing that made me most happy about this document when I read through it, was that these options on recreational release mortality were really starting to cut into a new way of thinking and a new way of approaching fishing mortality.  Emile [Franke, the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator] started off explaining that part of the problem with this fishery is that we have a tremendous amount of recreational release mortality occurring coastwide…

“…Unless we deal with recreational mortality and release mortality, through non-targeting closures, we’ve basically done nothing.  To modify harvest is one thing, but this is where we really need to put our focus…”

And thus the philosophical battle lines which shaped the current draft amendment were drawn.

Section 4.2.2 of the current Draft Amendment 7 addresses the issue.  It breaks efforts to reduce recreational release mortality into three options, Option B, which would require closed seasons, Option C, which would address gear restrictions beyond the current circle hook requirement, and Option D, voluntary outreach and education on the part of the states.

Closed seasons

With respect to Option B, the draft amendment contemplates two possible approach to closed striped bass seasons.  Sub-option B-1 would require each state to close its striped bass fishery not only to harvesting striped bass, but for even targeting the species in a release fishery,

“for a minimum two-week period to reduce fishing effort during times when the striped bass fishery is particularly active in each state.  As defined in sub-options B1-a and B1-b, a minimum threshold of directed trips targeting striped bass will be used to define ‘active’ waves for each state in which to implement its closure…”

It's important to note that the language would seem to allow a state to close any two weeks that it chose, provided that such period fell within any two-month “wave” deemed to support a “particularly active” striped bass fishery in such state.  The number of directed striped bass trips taken in the state would determine whether a wave was “particularly active,” with sub-option B1-a defining “particularly active” as a wave with at least 15% of directed striped bass trips, and wave B1-b raising the threshold to 25% of directed trips.

While that might sound reasonable, to the extent that reducing recreational effort, and the resultant social and economic benefits such effort generates, might be deemed reasonable, the concept has other flaws.  A state dedicated to gaming the management system would still seem to be able to time its closures in a way that would do little to reduce effort or release mortalitu, while states which chose to act in good faith would feel greater impacts.

As an example, consider New Jersey, a state which has long invested considerable effort in finding ways to escape its full obligation to help conserve striped bass and other fish stocks, and push some of its proper burden onto the shoulders of other states.  Its “particularly active” waves are Wave 2, March and April, and Wave 6, November and December, both periods when striped bass are migrating through New Jersey waters (Wave 3, May and June, would also qualify under sub-option B1-a, but not under B1-b).  

But the spring migration isn’t yet well underway by March 1, and the fall migration is largely over by mid-December, at least in most of the state.  So New Jersey could probably comply with the proposed closure requirement by opening its season on March 15, or closing it on December 17, without appreciably impacting either its fishery or the number of bass that die after being caught by New Jersey anglers.

On the other hand, a state such as Maine, where bass are only caught during three warm-weather waves, would have to shut down for two weeks sometime between May and October (May and August, if sub-option B1-b was adopted) when the closure would be likely to have a far greater impact on anglers.

Apart from such manipulations, the ban on targeting striped bass is an unrealistic approach to management.  As Massachusetts fishery manager Michael Armstrong noted at last October’s Management Board meeting,

“as long as you have bluefish in the water, you are fishing for striped bass.  It’s just an unenforceable thing.”

Connecticut’s Dr. Davis concurred, saying

“no targeting closures are, certainly speaking from Connecticut’s standpoint, I suspect for a lot of other jurisdictions are a regulatory nightmare and unenforceable.”

Predictably, Maryland’s Luisi again disagreed.  But regardless of his lonely dissent, for all of the reasons discussed above, option B1 deserves rejection.

Option B2 might be a different story.  It would impose closures that protect spawning striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, and in the Kennebec, Hudson, and Delaware rivers.  The argument for such closures is that

“Spawning area closures during the spawning season could contribute to stock rebuilding by eliminating harvest and/or reducing releases of spawning and pre-spawn fish.  Reducing releases during this time is particularly important to reduce stress and injury to fish as they move into lower salinity spawning areas…”

That argument seems to make sense.  It would also seem to imply a ban on targeting spawning fish, even if they would ultimately be released, a prohibition that already exists in part of the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River.  While enforceability of the no-targeting rule might remain somewhat problematic, it would likely be less of an issue in the spawning areas, where striped bass could be the only large fish present during the spawning season, than it would be elsewhere, although anglers ostensibly fishing for catfish or white perch could still illicitly target bass.

But Sub-options B2-a (no spawning-season harvest) and B2-b (no targeting for two weeks during the spawn) both deserve to go out for public comment in the final Draft Addendum 7.

Gear restrictions

The Option C gear restrictions also have merit.

Sub-option C-1 would ban the use of gaffs, and other potentially lethal devices, when landing striped bass. 

While it’s not clear how much mortality such provision would actually prevent, leaving it in Draft Amendment 7, despite the protestations of New Jersey Legislative Proxy Adam Nowalsky that

“There are many ways to use a gaff that remains non-lethal,

is a no-brainer.  A number of states already have such a prohibition, and in today’s striped bass fishery, where fish over 35 inches (36 inches in Virginia, 38 inches in the perpetually “special” New Jersey) must be released, there is just no reason to employ a gaff.  Bass that small fit into even a modest-sized landing net, and really don’t require any landing device at all, as it’s not hard to just reach down and grab the fish by its toothless lower jaw and either haul it aboard, if it’s going to be kept, or release it without taking it out of the water.

The use of treble-hooked lures could make jaw-grabbing a little more hazardous; unfortunately, a proposal to ban the use of trebles was deleted from the draft amendment at last October’s meeting.

Sub-option C-2 is also an valuable part of the draft amendment.  It would require that

“Striped bass caught on any unapproved method of take would be returned to the water immediately without unnecessary injury.”

Right now, that language would probably apply only to circle hooks.  Many states already adopted such a provision when their mandatory circle hook rules went into effect in early 2021.  However, there are some states (yes, New Jersey is one of them) where an angler could bait up an old-fashioned J-hook with a big hunk of clam while claiming to fish for bluefish, or fluke, or maybe even false albacore, and then keep any striped bass that “accidentally” latched onto that bit of bivalve while it was resting on the bottom.  

Sub-option C-2 would help keep such “accidental” striped bass fishermen on the straight and narrow path.

Outreach and education

Option D contains sub-options which would either require (sub-option D-1) or recommend (D-2) that states establish a striped bass “best handling and release practices” outreach and education program, to educate anglers and encourage them how to best avoid seriously injuring or killing bass during the catch and release process.

It's a nice idea, but not worth discussing here, as states will probably oppose any mandatory outreach requirement, while the benefits of a voluntary (or mandatory) outreach program are, at best, moot.  Responsible anglers already understand the basics of proper release; they’re already widely distributed on the Internet and discussed in striped bass fishing circles.  Irresponsible anglers, who dead-stick bait, take fish out of the water for photos, and think that kicking a bass back into the wash or bouncing one off a few jetty rocks on its way to the water constitutes "good release" aren’t going to listen to what the states might have to say.

Whether this option stays or goes will have little impact on the bass’ future.

Conservation equivalency

The final section to be discussed is Management Program Equivalency, which is more frequently referred to as “conservation equivalency.”  The ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Program Charter 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.”

If the Management Board required all states to adhere to the Charter’s definition, Amendment 7 might not have had to address the issue at all.  Unfortunately, the Management Board has allowed some states, particularly New Jersey, to become adept at manipulating the conservation equivalency process, and gaining a special advantage for their fishermen while undercutting the effectiveness of the management plan.  Thus, more responsible members of the Management Board are calling out for reform of how conservation equivalency is used.

In response, the Plan Development Team has incorporated a number of important reforms, and one really bad idea, into the draft amendment.

Those reforms are discussed in section 4.6.2 of Draft Amendment 7.

One of the most important of such reforms is designated “Sub-option B-1,” and would prohibit the use of conservation equivalency if the stock is overfished (sub-option B1-a), or if the stock is below the biomass target (sub-option B1-b), or if overfishing is occurring (sub-option B1-c).  All would apply only to

“the non-quota managed recreational fisheries in the Ocean region and Chesapeake Bay region, with the exception of the Hudson River, Delaware River, and Delaware Bay recreational fisheries,”

unless the Board also adopts other sub-options that would apply the such restrictions to other fisheries.

Sub-option B-1 deserves to remain intact, and be a part of the draft amendment when it goes out for public comment.

Another set of options, designated sub-option B2, would determine whether other fisheries would be bound by the sub-option B-1 prohibitions.  They present somewhat thornier problems.

Sub-option B2-a would apply the B-1 prohibitions to recreational fisheries in the Hudson River, Delaware River, and Delaware Bay.  The benefits of doing so are debatable.  Some might argue, for example, that the current New York regulations for the Hudson River, which establish an 18- to 28-inch slot instead of the 28- to 35-inch slot that would otherwise be applicable, provides better protection to spawning females than the coastwide regulations do.

Others might acknowledge that fact, but argue that eliminating the restrictions on conservation equivalency in the relevant fisheries could also lead to more “creative” regulations that do harm to the stock, particularly given the states involved in the Delaware River and Delaware Bay fisheries.

The right thing to do would probably be to memorialize any river- or bay-specific regulations in the management plan, and then let the sub-option B1 restrictions on conservation equivalency apply, but that would require a separate management action.  For the time being, sub-option B2-a should go out for public comment, to see what folks think.

Sub-option B2-b would apply conservation equivalency restrictions to quota-managed recreational fisheries.  There aren’t many of those; the best-known is New Jersey’s “bonus fish” program, which allows recreational fishermen to land a portion of the state’s commercial quota. 

The argument for allowing conservation equivalency to apply to such fisheries, even if the stock is overfished or experiencing overfishing, is that because the fishery is quota-based, conservation equivalency wouldn’t lead to a state harvesting too many fish.  

However, the issue is more nuanced than that, as the New Jersey bonus fish program illustrates.  Even when a fishery is constrained by a quota, such quota assumes that fish fall into a certain size bracket; the fact that the New Jersey bonus program has a 24- to 28-inch slot limit, and so kills a lot of immature female bass before they can spawn even once, raises the question of whether conservation equivalency restrictions should be applied when the stock is having problems.

That issue, too, deserves a public hearing.

Sub-option B2-c asks a similar question, whether conservation equivalency restrictions should be applied to commercial fisheries.  It deserves a similar answer.  If the coastal commercial fisheries are fishing on a 28-inch minimum pursuant to the management plan, should any state’s coastal commercial fishermen be allowed to fish on a smaller bass when the stock is not in good shape?  If recreational fishermen are limited to a 35-inch maximum length, in order to protect the larger, more fecund females, should commercial fishermen in any state be able to kill the otherwise protected larger fish? 

The public ought to be able to weigh in on that issue, as well.

And if a state is allowed to adopt conservation equivalency proposals, must there be a minimum standard for data quality?  That’s the question asked by Option C, and it’s important.

The Marine Recreational Information Program is reasonably accurate when applied on a coastwide basis.  For the most recent five year period, 2015 to 2019 (I didn’t use 2016-2020 because of possible COVID-related distortions), the percent standard error of its annual striped bass landings estimates ranged between 6.8 and 9.9, which is low enough to make sound management decisions.  But MRIP’s accuracy is heavily dependent on the number of samples made, and when the number of samples declines, accuracy declines as well.

So when MRIP is used at the state level, over the same time period, the lowest percent standard error for any state estimate is 12.3, for Maryland in 2015.  But plenty of estimates have a high PSE, with 11 of the 50 estimates—over 20%--having a PSE of 40 or more, topping out with a PSE of 54 for Delaware in 2019.  Error levels get even worse when state data is broken down by fishing mode (party boat, charter boat, private boat, shore) and/or two-month wave.

As a result, state conservation equivalency proposals can be based on very uncertain data.

Sub-options C1-a, C1-b, and C1-c would set a maximum level for percent standard error in the data used for state conservation equivalency proposals at 50, 40, and 30, respectively.  Given that even the lowest value would allow data with a percent standard error more than thee times the coastwide level, it would seem to be a logical choice.

That conclusion is reinforced by information in the draft amendment which says

“NMFS warns that ‘[MRIP] Estimates should be viewed with increasing caution as PSEs increase beyond 30…’  In addition, NMFS is implementing new Recreational Fishing Survey and Data Standards under which estimates will not be published if the PSE is greater than 50 and estimates with a PSE of 30 or greater will be presented with a warning that they ‘are not considered sufficiently reliable for most purposes, and should be treated with caution.’”

Thus, sub-option C1-c is the only one worthy of consideration, although the Management Board is likely to send the others out for public comment, too.

Sub-option D deals with a related issue.

Even if sub-option C1-c is adopted, state conservation equivalency measures could still be based on data with a percent standard error as high as 30, which casts substantial doubt on such measures’ ability to achieve the intended result.  To reduce such uncertainty, sub-option D would create a buffer that would require the state to reduce fishing mortality by an additional 10% (sub-option D1-a), 25% (sub-option D1-b), or 50% (sub-option D1-c).

As an example of how that would work, if the Management Board adopted coastwide measures that would reduce a state’s landings by 20%, and sub-option D1-2 was in place, state conservation equivalency measures would have to reduce landings by 25% (the coastwide measures’ 20% plus another 5%--25% of the original 20%) to allow for the greater uncertainty in the state level data.

Given the relatively high level of uncertainty permitted even by sub-option C1-3, D1-a’s 10% would hardly seem to provide an adequate buffer for much of the state level data; D1-b or D1-c would appear to be much more reasonable options. 

However, as was the case with sub-option C, all three are likely to go out for public comment.

While sub-options B, C, and D would all, if adopted, improve the striped bass management program, sub-option E could do it, and the bass, meaningful harm.  That is true, in particular, of sub-option E-1, which would only require state conservation equivalency measures to achieve

“the percent reduction/liberalization projected for the [fishery management plan] standard at the coastwide level,”

as opposed to the level that the standard management measure would achieve in any particular state.

Such option has a number of flaws.

As noted in the draft amendment,

“sub-option E-1 may undermine an overall targeted reduction,”

and so cause a management measure to fail.

Conservation equivalency measures approved for Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan, largely for the benefit of New Jersey and Maryland, caused the Addendum’s probability of success fall from a marginal 50% to an unacceptable 42%, after the Management Board agreed to establish conservation equivalency on a sub-option E-1-like basis.

Formally endorsing such a flawed approach would only incentivize states with the heaviest conservation burden to choose the management measures—coastwide or conservation equivalency—that would require the smallest landings reduction, and so undercut the effectiveness of the management plan.

Worse, sub-option E-1’s approach is contrary to the provision of the Interstate Fishery Management Program Charter quoted at the beginning of this section, because it would not lead to management measures with “the same quantified level of conservation for the resource” nor to “the same targeted level of fishing mortality”; instead, under sub-option E-1, the level of conservation afforded the striped bass resource would be less, while the level of fishing mortality would be greater.

That is not what the Charter requires.

Thus, sub-option E-1 should be removed from the draft amendment, and from further consideration, at the earliest possible time.

What’s next?

If the Management Board approves Draft Amendment 7 and releases it for public review on Wednesday, as expected, the ASMFC will hold public hearings in just about every state on the striper coast, beginning in late February or early March.  When that happens, it is important that the public turn out, either to comment at the hearings (which, because of COVID, will probably held in a webinar format), and/or submit written comments.

Such public comment made a big difference last year, and caused the Management Board to delete a lot of bad ideas from the draft amendment.  We need a similar showing this year, not only to get the bad things out of the final Amendment, but to keep the good things in.

Once the comments have all been made and collated, they will be provided to the Management Board, which will probably finalize Amendment 7, which will become effective on January 1, 2023.

Until then, we need to stay alert and engaged, and do everything we can to convince the Management Board to produce an amendment that will do the right thing for the bass.


Sunday, January 16, 2022


To put it bluntly, a fishery management plan that, because of how it is written, fails to prevent overfishing, fails to maintain spawning stock biomass at a level likely to assure the long-term health of the stock, and fails to provide for the prompt rebuilding of such stock should it become overfished isn’t worth the paper that it’s written on.

And any management body that tolerates such a plan, and makes no effort to correct its flaws, is derelict in its duties to both the resource and to the public.

Thus, it is good that, at the October meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, such Board voted to include a rebuilding provision in the most recent version of the Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  Such action followed another commendable action at the Board’s previous meeting, when it tasked the Plan Development Team with devising ways to protect the large 2015 striped bass year class, in order to facilitate such rebuilding.

Both of those topics have been addressed in the latest version of the Draft Amendment, and both will be discussed in today’s edition of One Angler’s Voyage.  The discussion will be a lot shorter than the one addressing the management triggers, but the issues are complicated enough to deserve a thorough review.

Because rebuilding, and then maintaining, healthy fish stocks should be the primary goal of any management effort, we’ll take a look at that issue first.

Rebuilding the stock by 2029

The current version of the Draft Amendment acknowledges that

“Rebuilding the Atlantic striped bass population will enhance the economic and social benefits attributable to this population in the ASMFC member states.  Economic benefits of a rebuilt stock would include increased use values (e.g., consumptive and non-consumptive use values related to commercial and recreational fishing) and non-use values (e.g., existence values) for current and future generations…potential changes [to management measures] may result in short-term negative impacts to recreational angler welfare.  However, the net positive long-term social and economic benefits stemming from stock recovery and subsequent catch increases in successive years will likely outweigh the short-term impacts.”

Thus, rebuilding the population should be the Management Board’s first priority when considering the impacts of Amendment 7.  There are undoubtedly a number of Management Board members who won’t see things that way, particularly because the management plan calls for rebuilding the stock within 10 years, a deadline that is now being interpreted as 2029.  

By the time a rebuilding plan is put in place, it will have only 5 years to get the job done. 

Despite that, the draft amendment has so far been faithful to the 10-year timeline.  It clearly states that

“The 2018 benchmark stock assessment indicated the striped bass stock is overfished and experiencing overfishing relative to the updated reference points defined in the assessment.  By accepting the assessment for management use in 2019, two management triggers were tripped requiring the Board to take action to address both the overfishing and overfished status determinations…To address the overfished status, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the [spawning stock biomass] to the target level in a timeframe not to exceed 10 years, no later than 2029.”

The Draft Amendment never suggests that rebuilding can be avoided or deferred, or that a longer rebuilding timeframe could be adopted.  However, the Management Board retains the power to alter the Draft Amendment’s language, so those things all remain possibilities. 

However, for purposes of next week’s meeting, the question is not if a rebuilding plan will be put in place—it will be—but how any necessary rebuilding measures will be calculated.  The Draft Amendment includes two options.  As such draft explains,

“The Board has expressed concern about recent low recruitment rates and the potential impact of low recruitment levels on the ability of the striped bass stock to rebuild by no later than 2029.  Several years of poor recruitment may indicate the stock is entering a low recruitment regime, and levels of recruitment that were sustainable during average or above average recruitment regimes may not be sustainable in the future.

“[The fishing mortality rate required to rebuild the stock] could be calculated by drawing recruitment from the values observed from 1990 to the terminal year of the stock assessment (i.e., the standard recruitment method used in the striped bass stock assessment).  However, if recruitment is drawn from a below-average period instead of the period from 1990-forward, for example, [the fishing mortality rate required to rebuild the stock] would be lower.  If the population is fished at [a fishing mortality rate intended to rebuild the stock] using the standard recruitment method but average recruitment remains lower than the time series mean, the population might not be able to rebuild to the [spawning stock biomass target] by 2029.”

Thus, picking the right recruitment rate is an important part of the rebuilding process.  To put it in a real-world context, the average Maryland juvenile abundance index for the years 1990-2021 is 14.16, somewhat above the long-term average of 11.4.  On the other hand, if recruitment for the years 2007-2020, identified by the Plan Development Team as a low-recruitment period, are used, the average Maryland juvenile abundance index would be 10.18, slightly below average.

Although that’s not exactly the way the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee would calculate rebuilding measures—they would very probably use the numbers of Year 1 fish recruiting into the population each year, rather than juvenile abundance estimates—it’s clear that the years picked will have a significant impact on the success of any rebuilding plan.

Thus, the Draft Amendment’s section 4.4 REBUILDING PLAN offers two options.  The first, designated Option A, would use the standard method of calculating recruitment when preparing the rebuilding plan.  Option B is more conservative, and would calculate recruitment based on the lower recruitment that occurred in the period 2007-2020.

Given that the last three years saw the Maryland juvenile abundance index return values of 3.37, 2.48, and 3.20, adopting Option B would seem to be the more prudent approach.  But I say that knowing that striped bass recruitment is highly variable, and largely dependent on environment conditions in the rivers when and where the spawning takes place. 

If the current cold continues this winter, and we have a nice, rainy spring, 2022 could produce the highest juvenile abundance index in the past 20 years.

Or it might not.

There’s no way to be sure.

The one thing that we can be sure of is that any rebuilding plan based on low recruitment will need to include very restrictive management measures if it is to succeed.  Measures so restrictive that I expect many Management Board members to either try to defer the rebuilding deadline or try to remove the rebuilding provision from the Draft Amendment.

I also expect that there will be enough Management Board members concerned about the future health of the striped bass stock that any effort to do the latter, at least, will not succeed.

Until there is hard evidence to the contrary, Option B seems the right way to go, although there’s no compelling reason for the Management Board to delete either one before approving the Draft Amendment.

Protecting the 2015s (and perhaps the 2017s and 2018s, too)

I believe in, and am constantly calling for, science-based fishery management, whether the species being managed is striped bass or something else.  Most of the folks I know who are involved in fisheries issues say that they want the same thing.

That means that we ought to accept scientists’ findings, even when they seem counterintuitive or are contrary to our expectations.

Thus, none of us ought to put up a fuss when we learn that the Plan Development Team, after consultation with members of the Technical Committee, has recommended removing protections for particular year classes from the Draft Amendment.  In doing so, the PDT said,

“The PDT is recommending that the Board remove [options to protect the 2015, 2017, and 2018 year classes] from consideration in Draft Amendment 7…

“…Stock projections for [the various options] indicate the stock recovery timeline (i.e, the year the [spawning stock biomass] is projected to exceed the threshold and the year the [spawning stock biomass] is projected to exceed the target) is the same as the stock recovery timeline under Status Quo.”

At first glance, that might not sound right, but it all comes down to killing fewer fish.

Protecting a few larger year classes does not, in itself, reduce landings.  It merely shifts angling effort onto other year classes, which would then make up most of the harvest (lacking any way to accurately calculate how anglers will respond to changing size limits, managers must assume that effort will remain constant despite any regulatory change).  Thus, to rebuild the stock, it's not enough to protect one part of an otherwise fishable population; management measures must allow more fish, regardless of year class, to survive, if the  spawning stock biomass is to increase.

As always, things aren’t quite that easy.  One might argue that shifting effort off the older, larger fish, that produce larger, more viable eggs and more viable larvae, might result in a greater benefit than protecting first-time spawners.  But one might also argue that allowing too many of the younger spawners to be killed puts the future of the stock at risk, since the older, larger bass won’t live forever; their ranks are constantly waning, and can only be maintained by allowing smaller fish to grow large.

A few of the size limit options considered did seem to provide some benefit.  A one-fish bag limit and 35-inch minimum size on the coast, coupled with a 2-fish bag and 18- to 23-inch slot in the Chesapeake Bay, seemed to offer the greatest protection, but such measures' benefits were still so small that they weren’t statistically meaningful, and fell within the confidence intervals—what we might think of as the margin for error—of the scientists’ calculations.  

Other options, besides the status quo, included a one fish bag and either a 32- to 40-inch slot limit or 28- to 32-inch slot limit on the coast, and a one-fish bag and 18- to 28-inch slot in the Chesapeake Bay.  None of those provided as much benefit as the 35-inch coastal minimum or 18- to 23-inch Bay slot, which themselves didn’t do enough to  merit adoption, and so the alternatives aren't worth further discussion.

I have to admit that, in my gut, I hate to see the year class protections taken out of the Draft Amendment.  But good fishery management isn’t driven by gut reactions—we’ve gotten into far too much trouble that way—but by good science conducted by competent professionals.  And since that sort of science is what led to the recommendation that the year class protections ought to go, then we need to be good with that.


Nest Thursday—just six days ahead of the Management Board meeting—I’ll address the final issues, conservation equivalency and efforts to reduce recreational release mortality.