Last Tuesday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board considered Addendum I to Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.
Addendum I—which has been around so long that it had originally been designated Addendum VII to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass—sort-of addresses an issue that has been kicking around inside the Management Board for a few years: Some states believe that the current commercial quotas are unfair, based on old data, and should be revised.
The problem, as some Management Board members have freely admitted, is that revising allocations is far easier said than done; reallocation is, without doubt, the most controversial topic that any fisheries management body might address. Those who currently hold larger allocations see those allocations as set in stone, never to be revised until the would ends. Those who ended up on the short end of the stick view the same allocation process as a gross inequity that must immediately be addressed. Debate on allocation matters is typically bitter, extended, and ultimately fruitless.
Thus, Addendum I took a different tack. Instead of seeking an outright reallocation, it would merely permit the voluntary transfer of unused commercial quota in the ocean fishery for striped bass from one state to another. The addendum offered four different options, which ranged from unrestricted transfer of quota to only allowing such transfers if approved by the Management Board, and subject to whatever conditions the Management Board chose to impose.
Such approach rescued state fishery managers from the unpleasant prospect of telling their commercial fishermen that they agreed to permanently transfer some small portion of those fishermen’s quota to another state, while still satisfying the primary motivation behind the addendum--providing a few more bass to Delaware, which has long argued that its commercial quota was unreasonably small.
Of course, if transfers were permitted, states other than Delaware might get some share of the unused quota, as well.
Most of the unused quota—295,495 pounds—is tied up in North Carolina, which once had a large commercial striped bass fishery, but has seen that fishery wane after the bass stopped wintering off the state’s beaches, and began spending the cold months in federal waters, where fishing is not allowed. Another 234,210 pounds is held by four “gamefish states”—Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New Jersey—which prohibit commercial striped bass fishing. Of that, the 18,298 pounds held by the three New England states is available for transfer, while New Jersey’s 215,912 pounds have been reallocated to the recreational fishery, and so removed from the potential transfer pool.
States with commercial fisheries rarely utilize all of their quota, and any such unused quota would also be potentially available for transfer; even so, the overall amount of fish available for transfer is very small. ASMFC staff estimated that if interstate transfers resulted in the entire ocean fishery quota being utilized, overall striped bass removals, by both the commercial and recreational sector, would increase by about one percent.
That’s not very much, but there is also a principle involved, and one that many recreational fishermen, including myself, agree with: When a stock is overfished, and struggling to recover, fishery managers shouldn’t approve any action that would lead to any increase in fishing mortality.
As Dennis Abbott, New Hampshire’s Legislative Proxy, reminded the Management Board at Tuesday’s meeting, approving enough seemingly trivial increases in landings, none of which, by themselves, would cause significant harm, can still subject the striped bass stock to the “death of 1,000 cuts.”
Stakeholders generally agreed that increasing fishing mortality at this point was a bad idea; of the more than 2,000 comments that the ASMFC received with respect to Addendum I, more than 98 percent opposed interstate quota transfers.
Thus, the Management Board members sitting around the table last Tuesday faced a bit of a quandary.
Some undoubtedly sympathized with Delaware’s plight, believing that the state got the short end of commercial striped bass allocations. There is a long tradition of cooperation at the ASMFC; although some states sometimes throw up roadblocks, the ASMFC jurisdictions are generally willing to transfer unused quota of other species, embrace conservation equivalency proposals of somewhat dubious merit, and perhaps even overlook minor compliance violations (or place the deadline for coming into compliance so far out in time that it amounts to the same thing), in the spirit of comity and cooperative management, particularly when, as in this case, the likely impact of any transfers on the striped bass resource would probably be small.
On the other hand, while the impacts of transfers might be small, such impacts would still occur, affecting what is arguably the most important fish stock managed by the ASMFC, a stock which is already overfished and trying to rebuild in the face of poor recruitment. Striped bass is a high-visibility species, and any Management Board action would be closely scrutinized by stakeholders, particularly after stakeholder sentiment, as evidenced by the 2,000-plus comments, was so heavily skewed against transfers.
With the table so set, the meeting began. And, once the introductory presentations were done, it began with a bit of surprise.
John Clark, Delaware’s fishery manager, moved that the Board approve Option D, which would permit interstate transfers of quota in any year only if approved by the Management Board, which could also impose additional conditions on such transfers. It was one of the most conservative of the options included in Addendum I, and Mr. Clark's support was somewhat surprising, as Option D was generally disfavored by Delaware’s commercial fishermen who, at a public hearing, preferred the unrestricted transfers allowed in Option B by a margin of 12 to 2.
The fact that Delaware was proposing that the Board approve Option D, and not Option B, was a tacit admission that Option B would probably be voted down.
Mr. Clark argued that Option D was one of the most conservative options proposed in the addendum, and that he preferred it over Option E, which was substantially similar but also prohibited transfers when the stock is overfished, because the states "know" when the striped bass stock is recovering, and should be allowed to make transfers prior to a formal scientific finding that the bass are no longer overfished.
How the states could “know” that a stock was no longer overfished absent scientific advice was something that Mr. Clark did not even try to explain.
Even so, the motion received a swift second from Stephen Train, Maine’s Governor’s Appointee. This was a second surprise, as Maine has traditionally been one of the staunchest supporters of striped bass conservation. Mr. Train provided a clue to his motivation when he noted that his state had benefitted from quota transfers of other species, a clear reference to Maine receiving significant transfers of menhaden that were badly needed for lobster bait, and so he understood the value of transfers as a management tool.
In response to a question from the Board’s chair, Mr. Clark explained that Delaware was only looking for
“A very small amount of striped bass.”
Fifty or sixty thousand pounds, he said, would suffice. Roy Miller, Delaware’s Governor’s Appointee, claimed that Delaware deserved such fish, first because the existing state quotas were based on voluntarily reported, 1970s-era landings data that did not represent actual landings, and also because pollution in the Delaware River resulted in very poor recruitment during those years. Such pollution has since been abated, and the Delaware River spawning stock restored, making more bass available to the state.
It's not clear whether Mr. Clark’s motion would have had any significant support, because the next two Board members recognized by the Chair stated their intent to provide substitute motions. Dr. Jason McNamee, Rhode Island’s fishery manager, was allowed to speak first.
He offered a substitute motion which tasked the Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee with running two population projections, one of which assumed that the entire ocean quota was utilized, and another which assumed utilization of the entire ocean quota except such quota as was granted to New Jersey. His motion was quickly seconded by Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fishery manager, and ultimately passed by a margin of 13 to 3, with only Massachusetts, North Carolina, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission voicing opposition.
From a parliamentary standpoint, the substitute motion was a shrewd move.
Given the public comment, as well as the Striped Bass Advisory Panel’s 14-4 recommendation against approving quota transfers, there was a good chance that, if a straight-up vote was taken, none of the transfer options would have prevailed. Delaying a definitive vote could only help those who wanted to end the prohibition on transfers; there was no way that delay could weaken their cause.
Even those who opposed quota transfer would find it difficult to vote against a proposal to develop more, and clearly relevant, information, as anyone who voted against such substitute motion might appear afraid of what the Technical Committee’s projections would reveal.
And we probably already know what the projections will say: The increase in fishing mortality attributable to quota transfers will be small. The Technical Committee’s confirmation of that fact will allow transfer advocates to discredit the public testimony as well-meaning, but uninformed, as such transfers won’t materially impact the recovery.
By deferring the decision on Addendum I to May, the substitute motion also assures that final recreational landings data for 2022 will be available to the Management Board when the debate resumes. Since, as I noted last month, it appears that the 2022 recreationalcatch—that is, landings and discard mortality combined—will probably exceed 2021 catch by at least 10,000,000 pounds, it will be very easy to argue that, compared to such recreational increase, the 300,000 or so pounds of additional commercial landings attributable that might result from quota transfers would be trivial.
Those two arguments could well stack the deck in favor of the Management Board approving quota transfers.
At the same time, an opportunity for a better outcome remains. Unless some very surprising information emerges at the May meeting, we should expect the Technical Committee to tell us—regardless of its transfer-related projections— that the fishing mortality rate in 2022 was substantially higher than it was in 2021, and that if such fishing mortality rate continues, the striped bass stock will probably not be able to rebuild by the 2029 deadline.
If that proves to be the case, there will undoubtedly be some members of the Management Board—my money would be on the Massachusetts delegation, but there are plenty of others who might play the role—who will want to initiate a new management action which reduces fishing mortality to a level that will permit timely rebuilding. While any such action would, of necessity, focus on the recreational sector, commercial landings shouldn’t be exempted, for they have also increased in recent years.
Reducing the overall commercial quota could render the transfer issue moot; so could an action that the Management Board has so far been loath to take: Treating the commercial sector the same as anglers, and applying any required reduction not to quota, but to actual landings, which would make it far more likely that the commercial reductions would actually be achieved.
After all, everyone should pay their fair share.
Last Tuesday, we saw the Management Board do one of the things it does best, kick the can down the road, rather than make a decision, when faced with a difficult choice. At the end of 90 minutes of debate, Addendum I stood where it had at the start of the meeting: Unresolved.
On the plus side, at least the meeting was short. My wife, who has been an unnintentional bystander to the countless, often seemingly endless, Management Board meetings that I stream at home, undoubtedly put everything in the proper perspective when she said,
“That was the fastest they’ve ever done nothing.”
At least this time, doing nothing maintained an acceptable status quo. That won’t be the case in May, when the Management Board will probably be confronted by a large spike in fishing mortality. At that point, decisive action will be needed.
If the Management Board plays kick-the-can once again, no one will emerge as a winner. And the bass will most certainly lose.
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