Sunday, February 27, 2022


The philosophy behind salt water fishery management has changed over the years.

One hundred and fifty years ago, people questioned whether such management was needed at all.  Professor Thomas Huxley provided the opening remarks for the 1882 London Fisheries Exhibition, when he stated, in part, that

“A salmon fishery then (and the same reasoning applies to all river fisheries) can be exhausted by man because man is, under ordinary circumstances, one of the chief agents of destruction; and, for the same reason, its exhaustion can usually be prevented, because man’s operations can be controlled and reduced to any extent that may be desired by force of law.

“And now to the question, Does the same reasoning apply to the sea fisheries?  Are there any sea fisheries which are exhaustible, and, if so, are the circumstances of the case such that they can be efficiently protected?  I believe that it may be affirmed with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of the most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible.  And I base this conviction on two grounds, first, that the multitude of these fishes is so inconceivably great the number that we catch is relatively insignificant; and, secondly, that the magnitude of the destructive agencies at work upon them is so prodigious, that the destruction effected by the fisherman cannot sensibly increase the death-rate.”

Professor Huxley’s opinions were demonstrably false. Today, on the western side of the Atlantic, stocks of Gulf of Maine cod, Georges Bank cod, Atlantic herring, and Atlantic mackerel are all overfished, and are subject to restrictive rebuilding plans, although in the case of the cod, rebuilding efforts are showing no signs of success; mackerel, too, have proven resistant to rebuilding, with a follow-on rebuilding plan put into place after the initial plan failed to achieve its goals.

To be fair to the late professor, he did say that such fisheries were inexhaustible “in relation to our present modes of fishing,” and in 1882, those modes were still fairly crude.

The fishermen who drove stocks of cod, herring, and mackerel down to their current levels primarily fish with otter trawls—large, efficient nets made out of tough, synthetic twine.  When Professor Huxley spoke in 1882, such trawls had not yet been invented, nor had the steel-hulled, steam-powered trawlers that tow them yet come to dominate the fishing fleet.  Synthetic nets would not be imagined, much less widely used, until the middle of the following century; until then, nets were made out of cotton, making them susceptible to rot and much more visible to the fish.

So from the perspective of someone speaking in 1882, marine fishery management might have appeared unnecessary.  But the arrival of new, more efficient gear on the fishing grounds immediately began to impact fish stocks.  In the North Sea, the fishing mortality rate for plaice, a type of flatfish, doubled in the early 1900s; in 1937, an international agreement established a minimum size for the species, as well as a minimum mesh size for nets used in the fishery.

Thus, the need for some sort of fishery management measures was recognized.

However, there was still no general agreement on how such measures should be established, or precisely what such measures should achieve.  In 1918, Russian marine engineer Fedor Ilyich Baranov published “On the question of the biological basis of fisheries,” a paper which set the stage for modern fishery management, and the concept of maximum sustainable yield.

However, just how maximum sustainable yield, defined as

“the highest average catch that can be continuously taken from an exploited population under average environmental conditions,:

ought to be calculated was still up for debate.

In the mid-20th Century, fishery managers concentrated on harvesting every possible fish that they could without collapsing the stock.  Some prominent scientists of the time scorned doing anything less.  Kevin M. Bailey, in his book Billion-Dollar Fish, wrote that

“One of the principal designers of US fishing policy was Wilbert Chapman.  He was the director of the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington, and in 1948 became the Undersecretary of State for Fisheries in the Department of State.  Later he worked closely with the tuna fishing industry as an advisor.  Chapman pushed the concept of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) as a policy rather than a scientific approach.  He said, ‘Less fishing is wasteful, for the surplus of fish dies from natural causes without benefit to mankind.’”

Since Dr. Chapman made that comment, most managers’ views have changed.  The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, directs that federal fishery management plans shouldn’t necessarily achieve maximum sustainably yield, but instead must achieve “optimum yield,” which is defined as

“the amount of fish which will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems; is prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor; and in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield from such fishery.  [internal formatting omitted]”

Such definition recognizes that there may be economic and social benefits to killing fewer fish than fishing at maximum sustainable yield would allow, a concept particularly relevant to fisheries dominated by anglers, rather than commercial fishermen.  It also opens the door to managing fish in a way that allows them to fulfill their historical role in the ecosystem, a consideration particularly relevant in the case of forage fish—those species which fill a particularly large place in the food web, as food for not only other fish, but for aquatic birds, marine mammals, etc.—where high but sustainable harvests of such species might deprive other animals of their customary prey.

Unfortunately, we still see occasions where fishery managers seem to cling to Dr. Chapman’s outdated philosophy, and adopt management measures intended to harvest every possible fish, even when such high levels of management might not accurately represent optimum yield.

The best example of that might be the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Bluefish Fishery Management Plan.

The bluefish fishery is predominantly recreational.  When Amendment 1 to the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan was adopted in 2000, it allocated 83% of bluefish landings to the recreational sector and 17% to commercial fishermen, based on historical landings.  However, it also included a provision that authorized the transfer of supposedly unused recreational quota to the commercial fishery.

Such reallocation might seem logical on its face.  However, the recreational bluefish fishery is predominantly a catch-and-release fishery, with about two-thirds of all bluefish caught returned to the water each year.  And in such a recreational fishery, the greatest economic and social benefits aren’t derived from yield, but from maintaining a high abundance of fish, that makes it more likely that anglers will encounter them when they go fishing, and thus encourage people to fish and to fish more often.

Thus, the unharvested recreational quota isn’t truly unused, and transferring unfilled recreational quota to the relatively low-value commercial bluefish fishery does not necessarily meet the injunction to manage for optimum yield.

Nonetheless, when a new Bluefish Allocation and Rebuilding Amendment was adopted in 2021, such amendment maintained the quota transfer provision.

There are other, practical reasons not to kill every available fish.

One of my undergraduate degrees is in History, where I concentrated on modern East-Central Europe.  When you study that region and time, when revolutions occurred on a regular basis, it doesn’t take long before you come across the axiom that

“Revolutions aren’t caused by continued poor conditions, but by dashed expectations.”

 In a fisheries context, that translates to

“It’s always easier to give people more fish than to cut back on their landings,”

and certainly has real-world application.

Consider the scup fishery.

Scup produced a very large year class in 2015, causing biomass to soar well above the biomass target.  So in December 2017, at a combined meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Management Board, fishery managers decided to allow states—including the northeastern states of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, which account for over 95% of annual recreational scup catch—to increase their bag limit from 40 to 50 fish for anglers fishing from for-hire vessels during the two-month “bonus season”, while decreasing the size limit for all anglers from 10 to 9 inches, in order to take advantage of the transient abundance of the 2015 year class of scup.

The problem was that, after 2015, recruitment didn’t only drop back to more normal levels, but fell further, with 2019 recruitment being the lowest in the entire time series used to assess the stock.  At the same time, partly because the relaxed recreational management measures adopted in 2017, recreational catch remained high; in 2021, it was far above the recreational catch limit, so high that a 56% reduction would be required to prevent 2022 landings from exceeding the limit again.

Such a steep reduction was extremely controversial; not only the Council and Management Board, but the majority of the biologists on the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee as well, felt that a 56% reduction was excessive, even though, for the Council, it was legally required.  The Monitoring Committee expressed concerns about the “socioeconomic repercussions” of a catch reduction of such magnitude, and instead recommended a rollback of the lower size limit adopted after the December 2017 meeting, which would achieve only a 33% catch reduction.  

The Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Greater Atlantic Fisheries Office stated that, should the Management Board not adopt the full 56% reduction, NMFS would probably have to adopt other measures, up to and including a complete shutdown of the scup fishery in federal waters, in order to achieve a reduction closer to the legally required 56%.

Such controversy could have been avoided had the Council and Management Board not insisted on trying to harvest as many scup as possible at the December 2017 meeting.

Given the unusually large size of the 2015 year class, there was little doubt that the liberal management measures adopted in 2017 would have to be abandoned in a very few years, after the stock began to return to more typical levels of abundance.  And very few anglers were unhappy with the 10-inch minimum size and 40-fish “bonus season” bag limit that was in force prior to the 2018 season; there was little pressure from fishermen to either reduce the minimum size or increase the bonus season bag.

Thus, other than a desire to let anglers catch every possible fish, there was little reason to make any changes to the scup regulations in 2017.  If managers were only willing to let a few more fish die of natural causes, there would have been no need for the 2022 catch reductions that caused considerable controversy and angler discontent.

Yet the ghost of Wilbert Chapman still haunts our fishery management bodies, and sometimes drives managers to find ways to harvest as many fish as possible, even when such levels of harvest don’t make too much sense from a scientific, economic, or human perspective.

It is time for such ghost to be exorcised, and to realize that, at times, not harvesting every last fish does, indeed, benefit mankind.







Thursday, February 24, 2022


Water pollution can take many forms.

When we think about it, we probably first imagine things like oil and chemical spills, industrial outfalls, sewage discharges, and agricultural runoff.  Yes, such things are bad, and have the potential to do real harm to both marine and inland fisheries.

But there are also subtle pollutants out there, things that we rarely think of, and haven’t yet made a meaningful effort to control.  They can also be doing real harm.

Pharmaceutical pollution is one of those.

People take a lot of drugs, and a significant portion of what they take ends up in aquatic ecosystems.  Some of that happens in the obvious ways, when pharmaceutical companies discharge tainted water into a river, or someone throws unused drugs in a sewer.  But a portion of drug pollution also comes from the mere use of pharmaceuticals that pass through the body, are discharged in urine and then enter sewage systems. 

Current sewage treatment facilities don’t do a very good job of removing drugs, whether intentionally flushed or naturally introduced, from wastewater.  About 93% of drug compounds that enter a waste treatment facility pass through and are discharged into the ecosystem.  Technology exists that could reduce that percentage, but it is not cheap.

Scientists are now learning that as expensive as enhanced wastewater treatment might be, it can also be costly to allow pharmaceutical pollution to continue unabated, for such pollution can have an array of adverse impacts on aquatic life.

Many different sorts of pharmaceuticals have been found in inland and coastal waters.  One paper, “A review of the pharmaceutical exposome in aquatic fauna,” published in Science Direct in 2018, surveyed the existing research on the topic published through 2016.  If revealed that 631 different pharmaceuticals were reported found in the waters of 71 separate nations; of those, only 16 seemed to occur worldwide.  Relatively few published papers reported on pharmaceuticals appearing in fish or aquatic invertebrates, with only 43 articles, addressing occurrences in 18 different nations, discovered; the majority of such pharmaceuticals were either antibiotics or antidepressants.

Scientists are beginning to understand the impacts of pharmaceutical pollutants on aquatic animals, performing studies both in the laboratory and in the wild.  Such impacts appear to be diverse, and may depend not only on the drug involved, but also on the environment.

For example, researchers in the Czech Republic found that brown trout could become addicted to methamphetamine.  They split 120 trout into two groups; one group was placed in water laced with methamphetamine for eight weeks, the other remained in amphetamine-free water.  The fish from the amphetamine-laced environment were then moved to clean water for a ten-day period, in a simulation of drug withdrawal; after two days when no fish were exposed to methamphetamine, the trout were exposed to two flows of water, one clean, one laced with meth.

The trout that had spent eight weeks exposed to methamphetamine demonstrated evidence of addiction, favoring the meth-laced flow of water over the meth-free flow; the trout that were kept in clean water showed no such propensity.

While such experiment might seem almost frivolous, significant concentrations of methamphetamine have been found in rivers, usually concurrent with music festivals or similar events, where researchers say that addiction presents a real risk.

“Drug reward cravings by fish, as was documented in our results, could overshadow natural rewards like foraging or mating that provision homeostatic and reproductive success.  The elicitation of drug addiction in wild fish could represent another example of unexpected evolutionary selection pressure for species living in urban environments, along with ecological side effects of human societal problems within aquatic ecosystems.”

Another laboratory study, performed on guppies, suggested that exposure to the drug fluoxetine, better known as the antidepressant Prozac, made it more difficult for fish to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Such study, “Psychoactive pollution suppresses individual differences in fish behaviour,” was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2021.   The study notes that

“Different behavioural strategies among individuals…are ubiquitous in the animal kingdom and essential for animal populations to thrive.  A common view is that such variation increases the power of selection through ecological and evolutionary processes, ranging from intra-species competition to anti-predatory responses and mate choice.  For example, more active and risk-prone individuals have been found to secure more resources and enjoy more reproductive success relative to less active and more risk-averse conspecifics, but at the cost of higher mortality.  Such behavioural specialization is a major driver of reproductive isolation within lineages and precedes changes in gene frequency.  As a result, intra-species behavioural variation fuels resilience, providing the adaptive potential for animal populations to survive in a changing and increasingly polluted world...populations with higher degrees of behavioural variation have higher population growth and persist longer than less diverse populations in the face of environmental change.  Conversely, the risk of extinction rises with reduced behavioural differences between individuals…”

Researchers found that exposure to even very low concentrations of fluoxetine reduced behavioral variation between individuals.  Given the importance of such variation to a species’ ability to adapt to environmental changes, exposure to such pharmaceutical pollution could negatively impact fishes’ ability to survive in a changing world.

Such findings are not limited to laboratory environments.

Atlantic salmon smolts exposed to anti-anxiety medications such as Valium and Xanax in their natal rivers begin their first migration into the ocean sooner than unexposed smolts, often reaching the sea before their bodies have completely changed to suit a life in the ocean, and before ocean conditions change to best support a successful migration.

A very different category of chemicals, synthetic estrogens and other “endocrine disruptors,” are blamed for creating “intersex fish,” most notably smallmouth bass in the Potomac River, where male fish possess female features, and can even produce eggs.

In Florida, researchers have found signs that pharmaceutical pollution may be adversely affecting one of salt water anglers’ most storied, and most valued, inshore species—the bonefish.

Hakai Magazine recently told the story of two scientists from Florida International University, who are trying to determine why there are far fewer bonefish in the Florida Keys and Bahamas than there were three or four decades ago, why the size of the remaining fish has declined, and why the sex ratio has fallen out of balance, with males far outnumbering females.

After taking blood and tissue samples from more than 90 bonefish, the researchers have found high levels of 58 different pharmaceuticals to be present, including antibiotics, anti-depressants, and heart medicines.  Every fish sampled had at least one such drug in its blood; many had more, with some bonefish having as many as 17 different drugs in their systems.  An abundance of pharmaceutical pollutants was also found in the crabs and other invertebrates upon  which bonefish feed.

One of the scientists opined that

“There is compelling evidence linking drug pollution to bonefish decline.”

It’s not yet clear which drugs might be harming the bonefish, or how such harm might be caused.  As described above, some drugs can change fish behaviors, while others affect their ability to spawn successfully.  Bonefish might be impacted in either—or both—ways.

It’s not completely clear what can be done to limit pharmaceutical pollution.  Expanding wastewater treatment facilities, and rerouting home waste disposal from septic tanks to such treatment facilities would reduce, but not eliminate, the problem.

In the meantime, it seems that many of the drugs that people take, in an attempt to stay healthy, are threatening the health of both inland and coastal fish stocks.





Sunday, February 20, 2022


People have an extraordinary capacity to deny unpleasant realities.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ 1969 book, On Death and Dying, noted that the initial reaction of people who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses is to claim that the doctors made a mistake, the diagnosis was flawed, and that everything will turn out to be fine.

We see the same sort of thing happen when fisheries begin to die.  People attack the science, come up with alternate explanations for why fish are scarce, and assure everyone that as soon as “the cycle” moves to its next phase, stocks will begin to recover, and fish will once again be abundant.

We’ve seen that happen more than once in the case of striped bass, most recently after the 2018 benchmark assessment found the stock to be both overfished and experiencing overfishing.  While many concerned anglers, who had watched the population decline over the past decade, were more than willing to accept the assessment’s findings and begin addressing the threats to the stock, others insisted on denying reality.

Some pointed to places where striped bass were locally abundant, including Raritan Bay in the spring and the Cape Cod Canal during the summer, as evidence that the bass stock was healthy, carefully ignoring the notable lack of fish in many other places where striped bass normally thrive.  

Others, including at least one somewhat erratic member of Congress, argued that fishermen were looking for bass in all the wrong places; instead of seeking them along the shore and in relatively shallow coastal waters, where striped bass had lived since the retreat of the last glacier, they should be looking far offshore where, for unexplained reasons, the bass had decided to move.

The fact that striped bass needed to enter coastal regions to spawn, and are surveyed when they do, was seemingly lost on the folks making such claims.

The same song was sung for bluefish.  A 2019 stock assessment update found the stock to be overfished, but if anyone attended the hearings on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s recently concluded Bluefish Allocation and Rebuilding Amendment, they might have been surprised to hear some people say that there were no problems with the stock; instead, it was just “the cycle” that sees bluefish abundance wax and wane for no apparent reason, or that there were plenty of bluefish around, but they just went somewhere else; one particularly insightful representative of the for-hire fleet suggested Africa as their possible destination.

As ridiculous as such science-denying comments may seem, they are almost understandable given that, until recently, anglers could still catch fair numbers of striped bass and bluefish; as little as six or ten years ago, managers were telling us that the stocks of both species were relatively healthy.

Thus, it’s not too unreasonable that fishermen might run into the occasional school of bass or bluefish offshore and, viewing such fish through the lens of confirmation bias, interpret their sporadic encounters as conclusive evidence that the fish haven’t grown scarce, but merely abandoned their traditional grounds.

But when it comes to cod, it’s hard to give science deniers the benefit of the doubt.  Cod abundance in the northwest Atlantic has been headed downhill for decades.  It was, in part, the decline in New England groundfish that created impetus for passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act on 1996, which finally converted the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act from a tool used mainly to push foreign fleets out of United States waters and upgrade domestic fishing vessels to an effective force for the conservation and management of the nation’s marine resources.

Yet there are many fishermen up in New England who still deny the clear evidence, and the scientific findings, that cod are overfished.  That fact was most recently demonstrated in an online meeting organized by NOAA Fisheries, which was intended to present information on warming waters and its role in the decline of cod stocks.

The website SouthCoast Today reported that over 70 fishermen attended the meeting, where a scientist from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute explained that deep-water temperatures in the Northeast have increased by 2 degrees since the 1980s, and that over such time, the cod stocks have steadily declined.

According to the website, fishermen weren’t completely on board with what that scientist had to say.

One fisherman from Gloucester, Massachusetts opined that

“The fish are there but we have to work harder to find them.”

He believed that the cod had moved to new areas, perhaps in response to what he perceived as a change in the tides.

Another fishermen rejected the link between water temperature and declining cod stocks.  Instead, he invoked the widespread belief in unexplainable “cycles,” arguing that

“some years are sparser than others, but it always bounces back.”

Given that cod have been in clear decline for the past three or four decades, it is remarkable that his faith that abundance will always bounce back isn’t beginning to wear just a little thin.

Another fisherman blamed an increasing population of gray seals, rather than overfishing, for the cod’s problems.

And, of course, there were those who fell back on the argument that there are fish around, but the scientists just don’t know how to find them, an opinion shared by long-time Massachusetts fisherman Vito Giacolone who, according to SouthCoast Today, believed that, when surveying cod stocks,

“researchers are looking in the wrong places at the wrong times.”

He claims to be finding fish, saying

“We’re talking about all these things meaning there’s no cod, but that’s just not what I’m seeing.”

In one way, many of those fishermen’s comments aren’t exactly wrong.  Fishermen are almost certainly seeing more cod than the researchers are.  That’s not necessarily because they are working harder than the researchers are to find fish, but because, part of the time, scientists actually are “looking in the wrong places at the wrong times.”  

At least, they are if one defines “wrong” as fishermen do.

The key is that fishermen look for fish where they expect, and often know, them to be.  Looking anywhere else would be “wrong.”

A 2013 assessment of the Gulf of Maine stock of Atlantic cod noted that

“Since the mid-1990s the distribution of cod has become increasingly concentrated in the western part of the Gulf, with a gradual loss of cod from the coastal and central Gulf,”

and expanded on that observation by saying

“Since the mid-2000s, the fishing fleet has become particularly concentrated in a small region of the western Gulf due to the fine scale aggregation of cod in an area where their prey (sand lance) were increasingly available.  This biases fishery [catch per unit effort] as an indicator of the abundance of the stock as a whole.”

So fishermen focus their effort in the few areas where concentrations of baitfish attract and hold whatever cod might be available.  Fishing on such localized abundances of cod, the fishermen have no difficulty putting fish in the boat, and catch them at rates suggesting that there are a lot of cod in the water.

And there are—at least, in the bait-filled water directly beneath the fishermen’s boats.  Where the fishermen go wrong is in assuming that such abundance exists elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine, as it once did, and in believing, based on localized abundance, that the overall health of the stock is good.

On the other hand, scientists survey a far greater expanse of water and, as SouthCoast Today notes, base their findings on data that

“is standardized across hundreds of trawl survey results,”

and, unlike fishermen, understand

“that individual experiences aren’t conclusive.”

Based on that wider worldview, they more easily comprehend that cod stocks are not doing well.

But the fishermen probably comprehend that, too.

When cod were far more abundant than they are today, the fishermen could find them in far more places.  They didn’t have to fish on top of one another to make a good catch, a phenomenon that isn’t limited to the Gulf of Maine, but was on display a few years ago off Block Island, when a much-heralded, but all to short-lived, resurgence in the recreational cod fishery saw for-hire boats from ports stretching from northern New Jersey to Rhode Island all fishing within a few hundred yards of one another, trying to load up on cod as quickly as they could before the party came to its inevitable end.

But the fishermen don’t want to believe the science, and they don’t want to believe what they know, in their hearts, to be true.

Like the fisherman quoted above, they want to believe that even if fishing isn’t too good right now, “it always bounces back.”  It’s just the downturn in an eternal cycle, and like the first warm days of spring, good fishing will return without the need for more regulations, for better science, for fishermen to leave enough fish in the water to sustain the stock in the long term.

Like the dying patient who denies the doctors’ findings, they want to believe not in facts, but in a wish that they know won't come true.





Thursday, February 17, 2022


Whoever first noted that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions wasn’t thinking about the use of conservation equivalency in the striped bass fishery, but the observation still fits.

In theory, conservation equivalency sounds like a good idea.  It strikes a balance between the need for effective coastwide fisheries regulation with the needs of some states, facing unique circumstances, to craft regulations that don’t do unnecessary harm to their local fisheries, while still providing fish stocks with the protection that they need.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’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…”

Thus, while a state may elect to adopt alternative management measures, such measures should only be put in place if they achieve the same conservation goals as the measures included in the fishery management plan.

Unfortunately, as the ASMFC itself admits, species management boards don’t always adhere to the definition set out in the Charter.

“In practice, the ASMFC frequently uses the term ‘conservation equivalency’ in different ways, depending on the language included in the plan.”

As a result, conservation equivalency proposals which do not meet the standards set out in the charter, which undermine the goals of the management plan, and which allow states to escape their full share of the conservation burden, have frequently been approved by the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board.

Such aberrant conservation equivalency measures have been getting more attention from both Management Board members and from the general public.  At the February 2020 Management Board meeting, Ritchie White, the Governor’s Appointee  from New Hampshire, voiced his concerns:

“It seems pretty clear, and my guess is everybody around the table will agree that the conservation equivalency is going off the rails…

“That is not how this Commission does business.  We have to change this process.  I think that that needs to be a part of the Amendment, to rein in conservation equivalency on striped bass, where you obviously have this policy for all our species.  But I think this is not working for striped bass now, and we have to put some very strict sidebars on how we use it in the future.”

A majority of the Management Board agreed, at least to the extent that meaningful changes to the way conservation equivalency is used in the striped bass fishery are contemplated in the Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass for Public Comment.

The draft amendment also contains Option A, the status quo option.

Pursuant to the ASMFC’s Conservation Equivalency:  Policy and Technical Guidance Document, that means that the Management Board is supposed to consider a host of different factors, including the state of the stock, before deciding on whether conservation equivalency is appropriate. 

But what typically happens in the real world is well illustrated in the transcript of the Board’s February 2020 meeting, when New Jersey whined like a spoiled child, complaining that life was unfair because the coastwide rules adopted pursuant to Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan would have required it to take a much greater reduction in landings than some New England states (left out of New Jersey’s petulant narrative was the fact that, in an earlier management action, it had finessed the numbers enough to convince the Management Board to allow it a two-bass recreational bag limit, with fish of different sizes, when the rest of the coast was limited to a single striped bass—so yes, when your anglers have been allowed to kill two fish, compared to one everywhere else on the coast, you probably ought to take a bigger hit than everyone else when new management measures go into effect, although New Jersey doesn't see things that way).  

The upshot, as too often happens with spoiled children, was that after hours of discussion that ended up leading nowhere, the Management Board caved in and gave New Jersey what it wanted—“conservation-equivalent” management measures that weren’t really “equivalent” at all, but instead allowed the state to escape much of its rightful conservation burden, and only achieved half the reduction that would have been achieved by the coastwide rules.

As a result of that decision, and other allegedly conservation-equivalent measures adopted in other states, particularly Maryland, the probability of Addendum VI achieving its goals fell from a marginal 50% to an unacceptable 42%, rendering the measure more likely to fail than succeed.

Thus, the status quo option is clearly not the right one to choose.

When is conservation equivalency acceptable?

When the stock faces threats?

One of the worst aspects of the Addendum VI conservation equivalency fiasco was that it impacted the management plan's ability to end overfishing on an already overfished stock, a situation when effective regulations are most badly needed.

In order to prevent having management plans undermined by inappropriate conservation equivalency measures in the future, Draft Amendment 7’s Option B would restrict the use of conservation equivalency at times when the stock is threatened.

Sub-option B1 defines the threats that would bar the use of conservation equivalency, with sub-option B1-a prohibiting such use when female spawning stock biomass is below the biomass threshold, and the stock has become overfished, while sub-option B1-b would prohibit conservation-equivalent measures when the spawning stock is below the biomass target.  Sub option B1-c would prohibit the use of conservation equivalency when fishing mortality rises above the fishing mortality threshold, and the stock is experiencing overfishing.

The first thing to note there is that the options are not mutually exclusive; more than one may be adopted by the Management Board.  Since sub-options B1-a and B1-c address crisis situations, where the stock is overfished, experiencing overfishing, or both, they clearly set out situations where the use of conservation equivalency could pose an additional threat to the stock.  Both B1-a and B1-c are worthy of strong support.

On the other hand, I think of sub-option B1-b as a sort of wish-list option.  While it would be nice to prevent the use of conservation equivalency when the stock is below target, the truth is that biomass will probably hover somewhere between threshold and target for much of the time, a fact that will probably make B1-b a politically unappealing choice for the Management Board.  Thus, while I’d like to see it adopted, we should be very happy if we can get both B1-a and B1-c included in Amendment 7.

Should the limitations on conservation equivalency apply to all fishing waters?

The contemplated limitations on the use of conservation equivalency when facing threats to the striped bass stock, as described in sub-option B1, would apply only to the non-quota managed recreational fisheries in the ocean and Chesapeake Bay.  Sub-option B2 contains proposals that would apply them to other fisheries, too.

Sub-option B2-a would extend the restrictions to fisheries in the Hudson River, Delaware River, and Delaware Bay.  Sub-option B2-b would include quota-managed recreational fisheries, while sub-option B2-c would include the commercial fishery, which is entirely quota-managed.  Does limiting the use of conservation equivalency in those fisheries make sense, from a conservation standpoint?

Sub-option B2-a poses a difficult problem, primarily because it includes three different bodies of water in a single proposal. The Hudson River and Delaware River both host spawning populations of striped bass, that ought to be protected; Delaware Bay clearly provides access to such spawning grounds, but is not a spawning area in itself.  

In deciding how the problem should be resolved, the key question ought to be “Is conservation equivalency likely to offer more protection to the female spawning stock than would the coastwide rule?

That question would be answered differently for different waters.

Spawning females in the Hudson River would benefit if restrictions on conservation equivalency were not extended to that fishery.  According to the 2018 benchmark stock assessment, about 45% of Age 6 females are mature; that number jumps to 84% of Age 7 fish.  Those ages roughly bracket the 28-inch minimum size of the current slot limit.  Thus, the 28- to 35-inch slot causes anglers to target spawning-sized females, along with some larger males.

However, New York has, through conservation equivalency, adopted an 18- to 28-inch slot on the Hudson River.  While some spawning-age females fall into the top end of the slot, and some immature females also fall victim to that limit, the majority of slot-sized bass in the river will be males; thus, the smaller slot helps to protect the female spawning stock by directing angler effort elsewhere.  Particularly at a time when the stock is overfished, it would be poor policy to compel New York to direct recreational fishing effort onto mature females, and so limit the growth of the spawning stock.

However, spawning striped bass in the Delaware River are not so well-protected.  New York, New Jersey, and Delaware all impose their coastal slot limits on anglers in the river, although New Jersey prohibits striped bass harvest during the peak spawning months in spawning areas.  Pennsylvania has adopted a narrow, 21- to 24-inch slot, although with a 2-fish bag, along a section of the Delaware River to protect spawning fish during April and May, but is unfortunately alone in that regard, and unable to protect fish that swim through those sections of the river governed by Delaware or New York.

Delaware does maintain a 20- to 25-inch slot in the Delaware Bay, but it offers no protection to spawning fish.  Instead, it is in place only during July and August, and is intended to allow anglers to kill striped bass smaller than the coastwide slot, which the state argues are largely males, at a time when few larger bass are available to Delaware anglers.

Thus, if the Management Board was willing to split this option into its component waterways, the right thing to do would probably be to exempt the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, where conservation-equivalent regulations provide at least some protection to spawning-age females, but to apply the restrictions to the Delaware Bay, where protecting spawning females is not an issue.

Should limits on conservation equivalency apply to quota-based recreational fisheries?

Sub-option B2-b asks whether restrictions on conservation equivalency should be applied to quota-based recreational fisheries.  In practice, such fisheries are those where commercial quota is repurposed and transferred to the recreational fishery. 

Today, the only such fishery in existence is New Jersey’s “Bonus Fish” program, which allows anglers who obtain the required tags to harvest one 24- to 28-inch bass for each tag held.  The New Jersey program primarily targets male fish, along with many immature females that have not yet had the opportunity to spawn.

Draft Amendment 7 notes that

“Quota-managed fisheries remain accountable to a CE-adjusted quota using census level harvest data,”

which is true.  However, although some states, like New York, permit the commercial harvest of bass less than 28 inches long (New York, for example, has adopted a 26- to 38-inch commercial slot), no coastal state maintains a commercial limit that only targets males and probably immature female bass in the manner of the New Jersey bonus program.  Particularly at a time when recruitment is low, it makes little sense to maintain recreational management programs that focus harvest on immature females which have not yet had an opportunity to contribute to the future of the striped bass stock.

Thus, applying restrictions on conservation equivalency to quota-managed recreational fisheries makes sense.  Sub-option B2-b should be included in Amendment 7.

What about conservation-equivalent commercial fisheries?

Sub-option B2-c would apply conservation equivalency to commercial fisheries.  Given that a state’s commercial quota is adjusted downward if it permits its fishermen to harvest bass less than 28 inches in length, and that no coastal state’s commercial regulations focus harvest on immature bass, even though a number of states permit some such fish to be taken, the need to apply conservation equivalency restrictions to commercial fisheries is questionable.  While arguments could be made for doing so, the stock is unlikely to suffer harm if such restrictions do not apply.

Minimum standards for data

As the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Recreational Information Program Data User Handbook explains,

“sample sizes decrease as estimation periods or areas decrease, resulting in more imprecise estimates…

“the more samples you draw, the more precise your estimate will be.”

Thus, the single-state estimates used to calculate conservation equivalency proposals will always be less precise than the coastwide estimates provided by the Marine Recreational Information Program.

How much more imprecise can such state data be?  

The “percent standard error,” the measure used to determine the precision of MRIP estimates, for striped bass catch during 2017, the base year for the current management measures, was 7.1, the sort of low PSE that might be expected for a frequently-encountered species that is found along a long stretch of coast.

In contrast, the PSE for New Jersey’s 2017 estimate of the striped bass catch, which was used to set its supposedly conservation-equivalent rules, was 18.3, which provides substantially more room for error.  Conservation equivalency proposals that rely on estimates broken down not only by state, but by two-month “wave” and/or sector, and even by catch disposition (harvest or catch-and-release), will often employ data with PSEs that are much higher.

Thus, Option C of Draft Amendment 7 offers some minimum standard for data quality.  Sub-option C1 calls for data with a PSE no higher than 50, sub-option C2 calls for a PSE no higher than 40, while sub-option C3 calls for a PSE no higher than 30.

Since, as the draft amendment notes,

“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,’”

sub-option C3, permitting the use of data with a PSE no higher than 30, is the only acceptable choice.  If NMFS advises that data with higher PSEs “are not considered sufficiently reliable for most purposes,” such data should not be considered sufficiently reliable for calculating conservation equivalency.

Buffering for uncertainty in the state data

Even if state data meets the minimum standards established in Option C, it will never be as precise as coastwide data.  To account for such inevitable added uncertainty, Option D contains proposals that would create an “uncertainty buffer” requiring additional precaution when conservation equivalent regulations based on such state data are proposed. 

Sub-option D1 would create a 10% buffer; under such proposal, if a 20% harvest reduction was required, state conservation equivalency proposals would have to achieve a 22% reduction, to account for the uncertainty in the data (if, instead of a reduction, a 20% increase in landings was proposed, the same buffer would limit such increase to 18%).  Sub-option D2 would require a 25% buffer, while D3 would require a buffer of 50%.

The question of which of those sub-options is the right one is answered, in large part, by the choice made with respect to Option C.

Under any Option C scenario, sub-option D1 is the wrong one; a 10% uncertainty buffer provides far too little protection, even if the percent standard error is no higher than 30.  On the other hand, sub-option D2, a 25% buffer, would balance nicely with sub-option C3, which prohibits the use of data with a PSE higher than 30; given such a limit on PSE sub-option D3’s 50% buffer would probably be overkill.  However, should the maximum acceptable PSE be 40 or 50, as contemplated by sub-options C2 and C1, then sub-option D3’s 50% buffer would become the preferable choice.

The Definition of “Equivalency”

Option E asks one of the most important questions related to conservation equivalency:  Just what is a state’s proposal supposed to be equivalent to?

The ASMFC’s Charter, which states that such proposal must “achieve the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management, [emphasis added]” seems to make that clear:  The Atlantic striped bass stock, as a whole, should receive the same conservation benefit from any conservation-equivalent management measure as it would from the measures contained in the management plan.

The proper standard for any conservation equivalency proposal is its impact on the resource, not its impact on fishermen or on the fishery in any particular state.

Unfortunately, that standard has not been applied in recent management actions.  Both at the November 2014 Management Board meeting, when conservation equivalency proposals were adopted pursuant to Addendum IV to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan, and at the February 2020 Board meeting, when proposals were adopted pursuant to Addendum VI, the Management Board based its decision on how conservation equivalency would impact striped bass fishermen (in particular, New Jersey striped bass fishermen), and not how supposedly equivalent management measures would impact the striped bass resource.

Such actions were contrary to the ASMFC Charter.

Even so, sub-option E1 would sanction such contrary actions, and only require that states’ “equivalent” proposals achieve the same level of harvest reduction as the reduction contemplated in the coastwide fishery management plan.

Draft Amendment 7 recognizes the folly of such action, noting that

“sub-option E1 may undermine an overall targeted reduction…or lead to exceeding an overall targeted liberalization.”

Given that admission, the clear language of the Charter and, most importantly, the needs of the striped bass resource, it is clear that sub-option E2, which would require that state equivalency proposals have the same conservation impact as the coastwide management measures have within that particular state, and thus on the overall striped bass resource, is worthy of strong support.

Now it’s your turn

Over the last two weeks, One Angler’s Voyage has analyzed all of the management options contained in Amendment 7, and provided advice on which ones folks’ ought to choose.

The ASMFC has now published a schedule of hearings to be held in every striped bass state.  Some will be held in person, others by webinar.  But whatever form such hearings take, anglers concerned with the health of the bass ought to attend and make their wishes known.

For those unable to attend, or who wish to supplement their testimony with written comments, such comments will be accepted by the ASMFC through April 15.

A year ago, stakeholder comments had a very big impact on the first draft of Amendment 7, convincing the Management Board to remove a host of bad proposals, including those posing the greatest threat to the striped bass.  Now only a few bad proposals, along with many good ones remain.

It’s time for one last big push on our part, to help assure that Amendment 7 turns out the right way.









Sunday, February 13, 2022


 Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass contains five “management triggers” which are tripped when one or more threats to the stock arise.

Management trigger 4 reads

“If the Management Board determines that female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [no more than ten years].”

That trigger was tripped in 2013, after a benchmark stock assessment informed the Management Board both that fishing mortality was above the fishing mortality target, and that female spawning stock biomass was below the biomass target, and had been for a few years.

Yet, as far as the Management Board rebuilding the spawning stock biomass goes, that just didn’t happen.

That was partly because the Management Board heeded then-Fishery Management Plan Coordinator Michael Waine, who advised it not to initiate the required 10-year rebuilding plan, saying

“The Board is acting to reduce [fishing mortality].  Through that action we see the projections showing that [spawning stock biomass] will start increasing toward its target, but we’re uncomfortable wit projecting out far enough to tell you when it will reach its target because the further on the projections we go the more uncertainty that is involved.  Therefore, I think the trend is to get back toward the target, but we can’t tell you how quick that will happen.”

But the predicted rebuilding also didn’t happen, largely because the old Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey grossly underestimated angler effort, and so the number of striped bass that were being killed by anglers each year.  

It wouldn’t be hard to argue that even if a rebuilding plan had been adopted in 2014, the underestimated recreational kill would have probably rendered rebuilding unlikely, although such plan, had it been initiated, might have been enough to stop some of the bleeding, and prevent the stock from declining further over the next five or so years.

There is another fishing mortality trigger in Amendment 6, management trigger 2, which reads

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [no more than ten years]”

That management trigger was tripped in 2019, after the Management Board accepted the 2018 stock assessment, which found the striped bass stock to be both overfished and experiencing continued overfishing.,

But even after biomass triggers were tripped by two consecutive benchmark assessments, the Management Board seemed to be in no hurry to initiate the required rebuilding plan.  Instead of promptly taking action to rebuild the stock within ten years, action that the Amendment 6 said “must” be taken, the Management Board instead initated a new Amendment 7 to the striped bass management plan.  

As originally conceived by some of its earliest proponents, Amendment 7 would have, instead of rebuilding the stock, merely “moved the goalposts” by lowering the biomass reference points, an action that would do nothing to increase striped bass abundance, but would have allowed managers to point to the redefined biomass target and threshold and say that the stock was not overfished any more.

That approach was almost universally condemned by participants in the striped bass fishery, and efforts to reduce the biomass target and threshold were stripped out of the earliest draft of Amendment 7 at the Management Board’s May 2021 meeting. 

The Management Board went one step further at its October 2021 and January 2022 meetings, adding specific language to the final Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass for Public Comment, which seek public input on whether the Management Board should assume continued low striped bass recruitment when crafting the rebuilding plan, and whether it should fast-track the rebuilding plan in order to put its measures into effect sooner than would otherwise be the case.

It now appears that the Management Board is committing itself to rebuilding the striped bass stock by 2029, the deadline created by management trigger 2.  The only questions now revolve around how it will get the job done.

Should managers assume low recruitment?

Striped bass recruitment has been trending downward over the past few years.  

The Maryland section of the Chesapeake Bay is the single most important striped bass spawning area.  The long-term average for the state’s juvenile abundance index is 11.6, but the last three years have returned JAIs of 3.37, 2.48, and 3.20.  The average for the last 5 years is 7.04; for the last 10 years, it’s only a marginally better 8.11.

So it’s clear that sub-par recruitment has been going on for a long time.

Rebuilding striped bass, like rebuilding anything else, requires raw material, and in the case of bass, that raw material takes the form of young fish recruiting into the population.

Low recruitment over the past ten years can only limit the Management Board’s ability to rebuild the stock, as more restrictive regulations can only protect bass already in the pipeline, and help keep them alive until they mature; no regulation ever conceived can protect fish that were never spawned.

Thus, Section 4.4.1 of Draft Amendment 7 seeks stakeholder input on whether fishery managers should assume continued low recruitment when crafting the rebuilding plan.  In seeking such input, the draft amendment advises

“Several years of poor recruitment may indicate that the stock is entering a low recruitment regime, and levels of removals that were sustainable during average or above average recruitment regimes recruitment regimes may not be sustainable in the future.

“[The fishing mortality rate that would permit the stock to rebuild by 2029] 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 only drawn from a below-average period instead of the full period from 1990-forward, [the fishing mortality rate that would permit the stock to rebuild by 2029] would be lower.  If the population is fished at a [fishing mortality rate calculated to allow the stock to rebuild] using the standard recruitment 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.”

Draft Amendment 7 offers two options, Option A, which would use the standard rate when calculating recruitment during the rebuilding period, and the more conservative Option B, which would base recruitment calculations on assumptions of low recruitment, and would thus require more restrictive management measures.

There is an immediate temptation to pick the more conservative Option B, to better ensure that the rebuilding effort is successful, but one additional aspect of the issue ought to be considered.

Striped bass do not mature quickly.  The 2018 benchmark stock assessment assumed that only 9% of age 4 female striped bass were mature; the percentage increases to 32% by age 5, 45% by age 6, 84% by age 7, and 100% by age 9. 

Only the 2022 and 2023 year classes, and maybe the 2024s, will be able to make a significant contribution to the spawning stock before the 2029 deadline.  Recruitment during the years 2025 through 2029 will have no impact on rebuilding at all, although it will have an affect on whether the stock can be maintained at the target level once rebuilding occurs.

Even so, Option B remains the preferable choice, because it could make a difference if the next few year classes are atypically small.  With only a few years left to rebuild the stock, managers are well-advised to take a risk-averse path.

Fast-tracking the rebuilding plan

The measures needed to rebuild the striped bass stock by 2029 are likely to be restrictive, but even very restrictive measures will probably need time, and maybe some luck, to get the job done.

Such rebuilding measures will to take the form of an addendum to the final version of Amendment 7.  The Atlantic States Marine Commission’s addendum process typically sees the Management Board instruct the Plan Development Team to prepare a draft addendum, to be reviewed at the Board’s next meeting.  If the addendum is satisfactory, the addendum is approved for public comment.  Hearings are held, and public comment is reviewed at a third Management Board meeting, at which point the addendum might—or might not—be finalized.

The entire process takes place over the course of no less than three meetings, and since the Management Board normally meets only four times each year, will be stretched out over no less than about 6 months.  The Board doesn’t like to change management measures partway through the year, so any addendum finalized after the winter meeting, which is held in late January or February, will normally not become effective until the next fishing year.

If the Management Board decided to move forward with a rebuilding plan after it receives the next stock assessment update in October, such addendum would not typically be finalized until at least May 2023, and its measures would not go into effect until January 2024, which only leaves five years to rebuild the stock before the 2029 deadline.

Thus, at its January meeting, the Board unanimously agreed to seek public comment on a proposal to fast-track the rebuilding addendum, and only that specific rebuilding addendum, by allowing the Management Board to move forward with a rebuilding plan without first seeking public comment.

The options relating to such proposal are contained in Section 4.2.2 of Draft Amendment 7.

Option A would require that the Management Board adhere to the usual process, drafting a rebuilding addendum and sending it out for public comment before a final decision is made.  Under such option, as noted above, rebuilding measures would not become effective until 2024.

Option B sets parameters that, if met, would permit a quicker management response.

If the October 2022 stock assessment update determines that current management measures (the existing commercial quotas, a 28- to 35-inch coastal recreational slot, as modified by conservation equivalency, and the existing recreational regulations in the Chesapeake Bay) do not have at least a 50% probability of rebuilding the stock by 2029, with the rebuilding plan based on whichever of the standard recruitment or low recruitment assumptions described above is ultimately selected, and if such stock assessment indicates that no less than a 5% reduction in fishing mortality will be needed to achieve timely rebuilding, the Management Board would be empowered to adopt a rebuilding plan without sending the plan out for public hearings.

Option B would not eliminate any chance for public comment on the rebuilding plan.  Stakeholders could still send in written comments relating to rebuilding measures ahead of all Management Board meetings, and have them made part of the meeting materials.  Comments could also be made during the public comment period at each Management Board meeting (and at this time, I’d like to thank Martin Gary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the new Management Board Chair, for his very thoughtful—and very appreciated—decision to inviter public comment during the January meeting).

By foregoing a formal period of public comment and public hearings, the Management Board could conceivably adopt a rebuilding plan by February 2023, which could be implemented by the states somewhere abourd April—in plenty of time to be in place for most states’ entire striped bass season.

The extra year of rebuilding time that Option B provides makes it the far better choice.

Given the state of the striped bass stock, this is not a time for delay, something that stakeholders made perfectly clear during their preliminary comments on Amendment 7.  It could even be argued that such comments, which called for speedy action to rebuild the stock, constituted an endorsement of the Option B process.

The Management Board charted the right path when it approved Option Bs for both Section 4.2.1 and for Section 4.2.2.  Both options deserve strong support.