Sunday, July 30, 2023



Anglers promoting striped bass conservation were pleased last May, after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic StripedBass Management Board, in a unanimous vote, agreed to initiate a new addendumto the striped bass management plan, which would reduce fishing mortality to itstarget level in the 2024 season.

It was nice to see all of the Management Board members agree on the need to conserve and rebuild the striped bass stock, even if New Jersey later dissented and cast the sole vote against emergency measures intended to reduce fishing mortality in 2023.

However, it now appears that at least some Management Board members are no longer committed to the rebuilding effort, and want to delay sending a draft Addendum II to Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan out for public comment.

The plan was flying under the radar, but when you write a blog like this one, when you have contacts all along the striper coast, and when you know and have worked with other conservation advocates not only on the East Coast, but on every coast in the nation, not too much escapes your attention.  Thus, I recently became aware of the plot to undermine striped bass rebuilding, thanks to friends who have long fished the waters of Chesapeake Bay.

The American Saltwater Guides Association learned of the plot before I did.  Friday, it published a blog post titled “This Is Low.  Even for Maryland:  Striper Update.”  Which gives you a pretty good idea of where the cabal originated.  In that post, ASGA noted,

“With information gathered over the last couple of days, we’ve come to the realization that a new dance from the mid-Atlantic is in the process of being choreographed.  The playbook for Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware for the meeting on August 1st can be summarized in a single statement:  ‘Kick the can down the road…

“…their plan for the August meeting is to wait for the stock assessment update in 2024 to make changes and buy themselves another year to protect special interests over the resource.”

The information provided to me merely mentioned “several states,” without naming New Jersey or Delaware—Maryland, on the other hand, was clearly implicated as the ringleader of the effort—but there is a reason that I have previously referred to all three states as the “Axis of Evil” with respect to striped bass conservation, and I would expect both Delaware and New Jersey to take advantage of any opportunity to undercut more restrictive management measures.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which states are involved.  Stalling Addendum II would place the striped bass stock at additional risk, and do a real disservice to striped bass fishermen, who expect the Management Board to maintain the striped bass stock at sustainable levels, and to rebuild the stock should abundance fall too far.  The fact that the stock has become overfished once again is already a serious stain on the Board’s reputation.

And things can easily become much, much worse.

People who look at the current abundance of bass may be fooled into thinking that all is well.  However, few young fish have been recruiting into the population.  Generally, we focus on the Maryland young-of-the-year numbers, which have been poor since 2019; in fact, the average juvenile abundance index for the years 2019-2022 is the lowest four-year average in the entire 65-year history of the Maryland survey.  We won’t know for certain what the 2023 spawn looked like until October, but low water last spring suggests that the numbers won’t be good.  Maryland’s fishery managers have also been unusually tight-lipped about the results of their early surveys this year, which some read as an ominous omen. 

It’s hard not to compare the unusually warm and snowless winter of 2022-2023 with the similar winter of 2011-2012, which led to the lowest Maryland juvenile abundance index in history, so it’s probably safe to predict that this year’s JAI will not be good.

That’s bad enough, but the recently released Review of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis) 2022 Fishing Year also reports that

“New Jersey’s JAI (Delaware River) was below its trigger level (1.07) in 2021 and 2022 with values of 0.67 and 0.77, respectively.  A 2020 JAI value for New Jersey is not available due to COVID-19 restrictions.  Virginia’s JAI was above its trigger level (8.22) in 2020 with a value of 13.89, but fell below the trigger level in 2021 and 2022 with values of 6.3 and 7.95, respectively.”

In all cases, the “trigger level” was the 25th percentile of the juvenile abundance time series, so seeing so many different spawning areas producing juvenile abundance indexes that low does not bode well for the future.

Thus, we’re looking at a striped bass stock with at least a four—and probably a five—year hole in its age structure, based on what we know today.  Those missing year classes are going to have a big impact on both the fishery and on the spawning stock as the fish begin to mature around 2026 or 2027.

And there is no way to know whether 2024 will bring better spawning success, or just more of the same.

Under such circumstances, it would be nothing less than an extreme dereliction of the Management Board’s duty to stakeholders and to the striped bass if it deferred action on Addendum II.

Yet, beyond that, it’s particularly disturbing that it is Maryland which seems to be driving any effort to delay further management action.

Maryland is, after all, the steward of the most important striped bass spawning area on the East Coast.  As such, it owes a duty to stakeholders and to the resource to responsibly exercise its stewardship, and do its best to assure that the striped bass stock is rebuilt and maintained at a level that is sustainable in the long term.

To date, Maryland has failed in its stewardship duties.

Its modern failures began in 2014, after a benchmark stock assessment found that fishing mortality had risen too high, and female spawning stock biomass had fallen too low.  Although such assessment did not find the stock to be overfished or experiencing overfishing, it did indicate that additional management measures were needed to reduce fishing mortality and rebuild the stock, and to comply with the provisions of the then-current management plan.

The ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee eventually determined that fishing mortality would have to be cut by 25% in order to reduce such mortality to the target level, but when such cuts were debated at the October 2014 meeting of the Management Board, Maryland argued against the Technical Committee’s advice.  It first tried to have the reduction phased in over three years, even though the management plan clearly required that

“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.  [emphasis added]”

The majority of the Management Board was responsible enough to reject that effort, but it was willing to agree to a compromise that allowed the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions to only reduce their fishing mortality rate by 20.5%.

Yet even after receiving that concession, Maryland failed to hold up its end of the deal. 

Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan required the 20.5% reduction be made, compared to 2013 fishing mortality levels.  In 2013, Maryland’s recreational fishermen landed an estimated 1,185,123 striped bass.  To achieve a 20.5% reduction, and comply with the clear mandate of Addendum IV, Maryland was obligated to craft regulations that would reduce such landings to just 942,173 fish beginning in 2015, and continuing throughout the life of Addendum VI.

That didn’t happen. 

Instead, Maryland anglers landed 1,111,502 bass in 2015, 1,545,586 bass in 2016, 1,091,614 bass in 2017, and 993,304 bass in 2018.  When Maryland’s recreational landings finally fell below the Addendum IV target in 2019, such drop was due to decline in striped bass abundance, and not to any effort on Maryland’s part.

The state’s fishery managers could, perhaps, be forgiven for the overage in 2015, as crafting new regulations can be almost as much art as science; unpredictable factors such as weather, the availability of other species, and angler activity, all of which can affect striped bass landings, are nearly impossible to predict in advance.  What was unforgivable was Maryland’s refusal to take any action in subsequent years, along with its refusal to accept any accountability for its failure to constrain recreational landings.

Instead, at the October 2016 Management Board meeting, Maryland fisheries manager, Michael Luisi, aggressively defended the state’s performance, saying

“When we see numbers, an increase in harvest of 58.4 percent in the Chesapeake Bay, it kind of leads I think, board members to believe that Maryland and Virginia, Potomac River [Fisheries Commission] may not have contributed to the successful management.  I stress the word success.  Now, I do understand that success in my mind is understood through an evaluation of fishing mortality…

“The actual written report that we have in our briefing materials speaks to the emergence of the 2011 year class.  It reads that ‘the harvest in the Bay in 2015 was undoubtedly lower than it would have been, had regulations remained status quo.’  I just wanted to make that comment, because I believe it strengthens what was reported as a kind of likely reduction.”

His point was that overall 2015 fishing mortality was successfully constrained below the fishing mortality target.  That such successful reduction was due solely to the coastal states reducing their landings by more than the required 25%--in fact, by enough to achieve the required reduction even given Maryland’s overages—seemed irrelevant to the Maryland manager.  Maryland could continue to ignore its required reduction, so long as there were other states around to take up the slack.

According to his logic, people shouldn’t complain that Maryland increased its landings, rather than achieving the required 20.5% increase, because even if its management response was inadequate, if the state had done nothing, its recreational landings would have been even higher.

So shut up and leave the heavy lifting to the folks on the coast.

Ignore the fact that the fish being killed down in Maryland were, for the most part, not yet mature, and would never enter what was an already declining spawning stock.

More than that, the fishing mortality rate in 2015 was 0.16, a statistically indistinguishable 0.02 below the 0.18 target, so Luisi suggested that not only should the Management Board ignore Maryland’s recreational overage, but it should also consider a new addendum that would increase fishing mortality (and increase Maryland’s recreational landings even more) because

“if we were to move from 0.16 to 0.18, it would be a small tick, maybe a 5 to 8 percent liberalization, in terms of numbers.  Maybe that’s what it would be.  I don’t have the number to refer to in front of me.  But what I’m thinking about and what I’m looking at, is the fact that perhaps just that very small change could be something that saves a few of the fishermen in my state.

“A half inch in minimum size could mean a lot to our fleets, our charterboat and recreational fleet; more so the charterboat community.  I’ve been thinking about this and thinking about what we could do as a next step…”

What he was thinking about was, again, increasing Maryland’s kill of what were, for the most part, immature fish.  Fortunately, the majority of the Management Board thought differently.

A few years later, the 2018 benchmark stock assessment revealed that the striped bass stock was both overfished and experiencing overfishing. 

Again, action was required.

Again, Maryland demurred.

At the February 2019 Management Board meeting, Luisi questioned the assessment’s findings that the stock was in trouble, questioning whether the addition of revised recreational catch and landings numbers should be relied on to reach such conclusions—even though the panel of disinterested international experts who had already peer reviewed the assessment had expressed no such concerns.

The February meeting also saw the emergence of what would become one of Luisi’s favorite themes:  That instead of rebuilding the striped bass stock, the Management Board should revise the reference points used to evaluate its health—in other words, move the goal posts instead of the ball—to allow a higher level of harvest.

That theme continued into the April 2019 meeting, when Luisi argued that

“We’ve had some concerns over the reference points for quite some time.  In our mind they’re a bit too high.  I think they provide for an unrealistic expectation to the public that we’re going to be able to achieve that level. 

“You know, currently the threshold reference point is 91,000 metric tons and 125 percent of that puts us at the target value, and when you look at the estimates of spawning stock biomass that came out of the benchmark.  We have never achieved the target in all of that time as we’re evaluating that. [a statement that was proven to be untrue in the 2022 stock assessment update]”

Of course, Luisi failed to note that the Management Board had also never constrained fishing mortality to the target rate for any extended period, which is a prerequisite for achieving the target biomass.  Of course, if you’re fixated on killing more fish, that’s an understandable omission. 

So long as the goal posts get moved…

Maryland made one more attempt to make that happen in the runup to the new Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  Once again, Luisi tried to shift the reference points in order to permit a bigger kill.  However, public sentiment overwhelmingly opposed doing so, with well over 95% of the public comments supporting the existing reference points.  Still, when other Management Board members suggested leaving the reference point issue out of the draft Amendment, Luisi tried one last time, arguing

“I have been in this field now for 20 years, and I do find that sometimes there is a lack of what the consequence is, to what is being recommended.  It is hard when you start an amendment, and you have as many elements in that amendment that are being suggested, to understand how they all incorporate together, and how they all bind together for managers to make those decisions at the end.

“I guess what I’m saying is, I would prefer at this time, based on the comment, that we understand a little bit more about the consequences to commercial and recreational and charterboat fishing, based on the issues being discussed before we start to peel away the different alternatives.  I know that it is a little more taxing on staff.  There is a little more work that has to be done, and I know we have a timeline that we’re trying to get things done, like in the next year, or maybe a little bit more than a year.

“It’s just my comment, Mr. Chairman, and I’ll leave it there.  I feel like there is still some development that needs to happen under some of these alternatives, so that the stakeholders can understand the consequences of their comments…”

It was, in one way, a very arrogant position to take, assuming as it does that stakeholders who support greater striped bass abundance didn’t understand that such abundance would require more restrictive regulations and lower striped bass landings, when the language of the comments made it clear that they understood such things quite well.  

On the other hand, Luisi’s comments reflected something not to far removed from severe confirmation bias, as he just couldn’t understand that stakeholders could take an informed stance that valued the long-term health of the stock far more than regulations that would allow them to kill a few extra fish.  Maryland, as personified in Luisi’s comments, loves their dead bass so much that it seems its representatives just couldn’t comprehend how the vast majority of the stakeholders who commented valued live striped bass even more.

However, most of the rest of the Management Board understood the stakeholders’ sentiments very well, and made it clear that Amendment 7 would leave the management goalposts exactly where they were before.

In that context, it makes perfect sense that Maryland would try to stall Addendum II, and maintain its current landings levels through at least 2024.

But maybe there’s something else that really doesn’t make sense.

Right now, commercial fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay, including those governed by Maryland, Virginia, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, are granted a 2,588,603 pound striped bass quota, which is divided among the three jurisdictions.  Maybe that’s fine when the striped bass stock is hovering somewhere around its target level, and recruitment remains close to its long-term average.

But both Maryland and Virginia allow their commercial fishermen to kill bass just 18 inches long, when the fish are still immature.  

While that, too, might be fine when the stock is healthy and recruitment is strong, removing over 2 ½ million pounds of fish from the Bay at a time when recruitment is chronically low seems to border on the irresponsible; if managers are to rebuild the striped bass stock, and maintain it at sustainable levels, the entire East Coast might be better served if Chesapeake bass were allowed to enter the spawning stock before a significant percentage of a small year class is removed from the population; in the alternative, if killing small fish remains legal, it would probably benefit the bass and the entire striper coast if the quota was substantially reduced during periods of exceptionally low recruitment.

Yet, if the information that I’ve received is true (and, given the source, I have to believe that it is) Maryland seems ready to defend its landings, and seek ways to maintain its kill for at least one more year, the public and the striped bass be damned.

We can only hope that it loses the fight once again.






Thursday, July 27, 2023



At its May 2023 meeting, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC’s) Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) learned that recreational striped bass landings had nearly doubled in 2022 and that, unless fishing mortality was reduced, there was little chance that the striped bass stock would be rebuilt by the 2029 deadline established in the striped bass management plan.


In response, the Management Board took emergency action, establishing a 31-inch maximum size limit for the recreational fishery (Emergency Action). It also unanimously adopted a motion which read


Move to initiate an Addendum to implement commercial and recreational measures for the ocean and Chesapeake Bay fisheries in 2024 that in aggregate are projected to achieve F-target from the 2022 stock assessment update (F=0.17). Potential measures for the ocean recreational fishery should include modifications to the Addendum VI standard slot limit of 28-35″ with harvest season closures as a secondary non-preferred option. Potential measures for Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries, as well as ocean and bay commercial fisheries should include maximum size limits. The addendum will include an option for a provision enabling the Board to respond via Board action to the results of the upcoming stock assessment updates (e.g. currently scheduled for 2024 and 2026) if the stock is not projected to rebuild by 2029 with a probability greater than or equal to 50%.

Since then, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee (TC) and Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team (PDT) have been collaborating on a draft Addendum II to Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (Addendum II), which the Management Board will consider when it meets on the afternoon of August 1, 2023.

The draft Addendum II generally reflects the Management Board’s motion. It contains options that, if ultimately adopted by the Management Board, will increase the likelihood that the striped bass stock will rebuild by the 2029 deadline. The final shape of Amendment II will depend, in large part, on whether a majority of the Management Board remains committed to stock rebuilding in the face of the inevitable stakeholder opposition, and whether the public turns out to the hearings in large enough numbers to support rebuilding measures.

Recreational Options

When the TC and PDT began to consider recreational management measures, it quickly became clear that a slot limit alone would not be enough to reduce fishing mortality to the target level; closed seasons, when no striped bass harvest would be permitted, will also be required. Draft Addendum II thus includes what is probably an overly-complicated matrix of possible size and bag limits for recreational fisheries in the ocean and in the Chesapeake Bay.

In the ocean, stakeholders are presented with three possible slot size limits, including the 28- to 31-inch limit set by the Emergency Action, a slightly wider 28- to 32-inch slot, or a 30- to 33-inch slot that would satisfy some anglers’ preference to take home larger fish.

While that preference is understandable, the primary goal of the Emergency Action was to reduce the harvest of bass belonging to the large 2015 year class, which are needed to rebuild the spawning stock. Draft Addendum II states that “the age-9 2015 year-class in 2024 has an estimated average length of about 34″,” so a 30- to 33-inch slot limit would extend less protection to the 2015s than the other two options, and would seemingly contradict the Emergency Action’s intent.


Although an average-sized, 9-year-old striped bass might be 34 inches long, individual fish can vary significantly from such average length; that’s why, although the average member of the 2015 year class is 31.6 inches long in 2023, the Emergency Action’s 31-inch maximum size is only expected to protect “over 50%,” and not all, of that year class from recreational harvest. In 2024, a 30- to 33-inch slot limit would expose a significant minority of the 2015 year class to recreational harvest. Maintaining the Emergency Action’s 28- to 31-inch slot would minimize such exposure.


Whatever slot limit is ultimately chosen (and the Management Board will probably leave more than one option, and perhaps all three, in the draft addendum that is sent out for public comment), it will have to be matched with an appropriate closed season, although such seasons present their own problems. Fishing doesn’t peak in every state at the same time, and a closure that has a real impact in Maine might be ineffective in Maryland; while a coastwide season is included among the options for the 28- to 31-inch slot, it would be a poor choice for the Management Board.

Draft Addendum II’s solution is to break the coast into two or three regions, setting a different season for each. Some of those seasons would require states in southern New England and the upper mid-Atlantic to close their seasons at some point during November and December, when the bass’ southbound migration is already well underway, and so might not be as effective as earlier closures. Otherwise, picking the right season will be more a matter of stakeholder preference than of efficacy.

Options for the Chesapeake Bay’s recreational fisheries face somewhat different issues. Although the bay is a relatively small area, none of its four jurisdictions maintain the same striped bass regulations; each has its own combination of bag limits, size limits, and seasons.

To address that situation, draft Addendum II includes two options which leave the current minimum size and bag limits intact, add additional season closures to the closures already in place, and lower the maximum size to either 23 or 24 inches; four which would establish a 20-inch minimum size, set a maximum size somewhere between 24 and 28 inches, and adopt additional season closures, while leaving current bag limits intact; and two others which would set a 1-fish bag limit, a 19- or 20-inch minimum size, and a 23- or 26-inch maximum size bay-wide, but would leave each jurisdiction’s current season intact.

While all of the bay options would probably achieve the target reductions, adopting more consistent regulations across all bay jurisdictions would certainly help the TC when it came time to evaluate the new regulations’ impacts on the spawning stock, help keep anglers from becoming confused when they cross jurisdictional boundaries, and make it more likely that recreational fishermen would comply with the new rules.

Beyond that, the only other concern, which applies to all of the recreational options, both for the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, is that they put the onus of striped bass rebuilding squarely on anglers’ shoulders, while asking little of the commercial sector. As draft Addendum II notes, “The proposed commercial fishery options consider maximum size limits. Depending on the option selected by the Board, quota reductions may or may not be implemented with these size limit changes…a reduction in commercial removals could not be assumed, and so is assumed to be 0%. Consequently, to achieve the required overall reduction, the recreational sector must take a 16.1% reduction.”


There is little question that, if the striped bass stock is rebuilt, the commercial sector will benefit. That being the case, that sector should also bear some of the responsibility for stock rebuilding. Requiring one sector to take a substantial harvest reduction while the other sector takes no reduction at all not only reeks of inequity, but risks alienating anglers from the fishery management process.

Commercial Options

As draft Addendum II points out, the commercial options would place a maximum size on striped bass landed by commercial fishermen, “to protect the largest, mature female striped bass contributing to the spawning stock biomass.” Currently, of all the ocean states with commercial fisheries, only New York has such a maximum size; in the Chesapeake Bay, the use of such maximum sizes is more widely accepted.


Draft Addendum II proposes maximum sizes of 38, 40, or 42 inches for the ocean, and a 36-inch maximum in the Chesapeake Bay, although for the bay fishery, there is also an option which would reduce the maximum size to 28 inches between January 1 and May 31 to protect female bass that enter the bay to spawn.

Yet, as beneficial as a maximum size may appear, it generates additional complications. If a maximum size is adopted, the bass harvested by commercial fishermen will, in most states, average smaller than those currently landed. Because the states’ commercial quotas are denoted in pounds, and not in numbers of fish, that would result in more striped bass being harvested each year, an outcome seemingly contrary to Addendum II’s conservation goals.

To prevent that from occurring, draft Addendum II includes an option which would adjust current quotas, based on spawning potential analysis, to account for the new size limit. Such analysis would probably result in most states receiving smaller quotas although, in some cases, small state quota increases could occur.

Should the Management Board decide to adjust the state quotas, it would also have to decide how to do so. It could either calculate the new quotas based on those that were in place in 2022, which reflected the various size limits adopted, over time, by the states, or it could base its calculations on the original quotas established twenty years ago, which all assumed a 28-inch minimum size. The latter approach would place all states on an equal footing, but many states might well prefer whichever calculation gave them the largest quota in 2024.

A final issue, which has not been resolved in draft Addendum II, is how to deal with the higher levels of dead discards that will probably result if a maximum size is imposed on the commercial fishery. Many states allow commercial fishermen to employ gear that is not size-selective; at one joint meeting of the TC and PDT, a representative from Delaware admitted that because the fixed gill nets used by his state’s fishermen were particularly “dirty,” a maximum size limit would likely lead to substantial discard mortality. It is a topic that states, and perhaps the Management Board, will eventually need to address.

Future Management Actions

Draft Addendum II is not expected to survive much past the end of 2024, since a new stock assessment is scheduled for October 2024, and there is a very good chance that such update will reveal that additional management actions will be needed to rebuild the striped bass stock by the 2029 deadline.

That could present a problem for, as draft Addendum II recognizes, “Based on assessment timing and the typical addendum development and implementation process, new measures would likely not be implemented until two years following the assessment…If the Board initiates an addendum in October 2024, approves it for public comment in February 2025, and then selects final measures in May 2025, the earliest implementation would likely be late 2025 or early 2026.”

Thus, draft Addendum II contains a final option which would allow the Management Board to fast-track any additional rebuilding measures, without going through the formal addendum process. Instead, such measures could be adopted through a simple Management Board vote. Public comment would be provided through oral comments at the Management Board meeting and/or through written comments addressed to the Management Board prior to the meeting date, without the need for a public hearing process.

Next Steps

When the Management Board holds its August 2023 meeting, it will not adopt new management measures. Instead, it will refine the language of the draft addendum, perhaps removing some options, perhaps adding options that were not there before. Then, it will release the revised Draft Addendum II for public comment, and hold public hearings on the draft during August and early September, in most or all of the states between Maine and North Carolina.

The comments received from stakeholders at the hearings, as well as written comments sent in during the public comment period, may well decide the fate of Addendum II. Many members of the for-hire fleet were dismayed by the Emergency Action, believing that it will harm their businesses, and they will probably take a firm stand against further restrictions on landings.

Yet, as draft Addendum II observed, “Assuming the narrow slot limit implemented through the 2023 emergency action and the narrow slot options considered for 2024 will support the rebuilding of the striped bass population, it will likely ensure the quality of the recreational fishing experience for the sector in the long term.” Despite some short-term economic discomfort, it would be in everyone’s interest to put the needed management measures in place.


The Management Board is expected to approve the final version of Addendum II at its October 2023 meeting, so that all management measures included in such addendum may be adopted by the states in time for the 2024 season.


This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Sunday, July 23, 2023



Ever since the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act—the statute that we now know as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act—was signed into law in 1976, United States fisheries have been managed by the Secretary of Commerce, acting through the National Marine Fisheries Service, which in turn is advised by eight regional fishery management councils.

The law provides that each regional fishery management council shall

“for each fishery under its authority requiring conservation and management, propose and submit to the Secretary [of Commerce] a fishery management plan, and amendments to each such plan that are necessary from time to time…; prepare comments on any application for foreign fishing transmitted to it…; conduct public hearings…so as to allow all interested persons an opportunity to be heard in the development of fishery management plans and amendments to such plans…; submit to the Secretary such periodic reports as the Council deems appropriate, and any other relevant report which may be requested by the Secretary; review on a continuing basis, and revise as appropriate, the assessments and specifications made…with respect to the optimum yield from, the capacity and extent to which United States fish processors will process United States harvested fish from, and the total allowable level of foreign fishing in, each fishery…; develop annual catch limits for each of its managed fisheries…; develop…multi-year research priorities for fisheries, fisheries interactions, habitats, and other areas of research that are necessary for management purposes..; and conduct any other activities which are required by, or are provided for in, [Magnuson-Stevens] or which are necessary or appropriate to the foregoing functions. [formatting omitted]”

It's a very broad mandate, but there is one thing that the regional fishery management councils clearly can’t do.  They can’t actually make regulations.  Instead, they can only forward their fishery management plans, plan amendments, and other management actions to the Secretary of Commerce (or, in the real world, to folks at NMFS, who act in the Secretary’s stead and with the Secretary’s approval), who shall then

“approve, disapprove, or partially approve a plan or amendment within 30 days of the end of the [required] comment period…by written notice to the Council…If the Secretary does not notify the Council within 30 days of the end of the comment period of the approval, disapproval, or partial approval of a plan or amendment, then such plan or amendment shall take effect as if approved.”

The Commerce Department, through NMFS, must then adopt final regulations conforming to the approved management measures.

It’s a somewhat cumbersome system, and it took a while to work out the kinks.  For the first twenty years after passage of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, fishermen sitting on the regional fishery management councils tended to vote in their immediaate self-interests, often using economic impacts as an excuse to overfish stocks.  The New England Fishery Management Council oversaw the decline of New England groundfish during that period for just that reason.

In response, Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996.  That law substantially amended Magnuson-Stevens by placing very strict limits on the exercise of regional fishery management councils’ discretion, and establishing legally enforceable provisions that, among other things, prohibited overfishing and required the timely rebuilding of overfished stocks.

The Sustainable Fisheries Act had a salutary impact on the health of fish stocks, leading to sharply reduced overfishing and the complete rebuilding of more than forty once-overfished stocks.  However, it also placed hard limits on fishermen’s landings, which led to short-term economic discomfort and long-lasting discontent.  Fishermen and fishermen’s organizations, representing both the commercial and recreational sectors, have been trying to find ways around the law’s conservation and management mandates ever since.

Most of those efforts have fallen flat.  However, there is a current effort which, due to the current political climate more than its inherent merits, threatens to bring down the current fishery management system and, in doing so, bring chaos to federal fisheries.

The threat comes in the form of a lawsuit filed in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi by George D. Arnesen and Jeffrey Ryan Bradley, both commercial fishermen, against Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, NMFS, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and various members of the latter two institutions.

The ostensible purpose of the lawsuit is to challenge commercial amberjack regulations recently published by NMFS.  However, the suit goes much farther than that, ultimately challenging the constitutionality of the current federal fishery management system.  Early allegations made in the complaint include language such as,

“In its zeal to regulate [fisheries], however, Congress converted federal waters into Constitution-free zones, violating the Constitution in multiple respects—violations that are increasingly drawing judicial scrutiny…A well-intentioned attempt at rule by enlightened experts has devolved, as usual, into a bureaucratic morass captured by narrow interests.”

The crux of the plaintiff’s argument is included in the next paragraphs, where the complaint alleges,

“That dynamic is clear in this case, which confronts the unconstitutional core of the [Magnuson-Stevens] Act’s regulatory apparatus.  At the heart of the Act are eight Regional Fishery Management Councils: federal entities charged by Congress with ‘exercise[ing] sound judgment in the stewardship of fishery resources’ within multi-state zones…

“Congress ‘designated’ the Councils as ‘primary policy makers’ for federal fisheries, ‘vesting [them] with the authority to develop management plans’ that ‘dictate the fundamental objectives and methods of managing a given fishery’…This is clear from the Act’s text, which enshrines the Councils as the first and last word on marine fishing policy…

“Given this broad authority to set, monitor, adjust, and preserve federal policies…one would expect some degree of federal democratic control over the Councils.  But Congress provided just the opposite, immunizing Council Members from meaningful control by the President, his Commerce Secretary, and through them the American people…Congress broke the Constitution’s promise of separated powers and executive accountability…

“To start, the Act makes no effort to hew to the Appointment Clause [of the United States Constitution]…

“[The relevant] appointment methods and removal restrictions are patently unconstitutional.  Council Members are officers of the United States subject to the Appointment Clause.  But they are not selected according to its rules.  Moreover, due to their near-ironclad removal protections, the Councils exercise policymaking authority beyond presidential control.  That insulation flouts the Constitution’s vesting of executive power in the President and frustrate his obligation to faithfully execute the Nation’s laws… [internal references omitted]”

The complaint contains other allegations challenging the authority of various NMFS officials, etc., but little would be gained by repeating them here.

Half a dozen years ago, such claims would have been seen as little more than a nuisance, and quickly dismissed.  Courts had recognized that regional fishery management councils were not analogous to federal agencies, and that council members were neither employees nor officers of the United States, but merely advisors to NMFS and the Commerce Department. 

One of the more detailed analyses came in the matter of J.H. Miles & Co. v. Brown, which was decided by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in 1995.  There, the Court found that it could

“not conclude that the Mid-Atlantic [Fishery Management] Council is an ‘agency’ within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act.  Ultimately, it is not an ‘authority’ of the U.S. Government because it has no ‘authority’ to do anything.  It cannot promulgate the fishing quotas.  It cannot issue rules affecting the fishery.  Its power is limited to ‘recommending’ the quotas [and, under other circumstances, other management measures] to the Secretary…[A]t the end of the day, the Secretary does have the power to alter the recommendations of the Mid-Atlantic Council, and he alone has the power to promulgate the [regulations].”

Had Arnesen v. Raimondo been brought in 2016, it would have been quickly defeated, probably without even drawing the attention of some late-night host on Fox News.

That situation changed in 2017, when the incoming Trump administration set about its efforts to alter the federal courts, and shift federal jurisprudence sharply to the right.  How that took place was described in detail in a September 13, 2022 piece on National Public Radio, which reported that

“Shortly after Trump was elected, Mitch McConnell [then the Senate Majority Leader] gave some advice to Don McGahn [a high-level attorney at the firm Jones Day, who had been named White House counsel].  The advice was that instead of relying on a committee at the White House to debate and pick nominees for the Supreme Court and other federal courts, McConnell’s advice was, ‘Look, you should get Trump’s permission to just do this by yourself. You alone should have the power to pick the judges that Trump will nominate.’”

The National Public Radio piece quotes journalist David Enrich, who noted that

“One of the core tenets of McGahn’s judicial philosophy was this real antipathy towards what he calls derisively ‘the administrative state.’  And one of the biggest results of that is that it translates into judges [picked by McGahn] who no longer give nearly as much deference to the rights and authority of federal agencies as had been the norm.”

The piece goes on to note that McGahn has since returned to Jones Day, and that the firm

“[is] now bringing cases through the Supreme Court and through the lower courts that were basically made possible by this deluge of very conservative judges that are now on the benches of many courts…

“And Jones Day, just reading the tea leaves and talking to their lawyers now, it’s quite clear that they are plotting a wide range of attacks on the power of the federal government to oversee private businesses and private companies in a way that goes back to Don McGahn and his colleagues’ hatred of the so-called administrative state.  And they are now in a position to much more forcefully advocate those positions and be successful in their advocacy—thanks to all of the judges that Trump, at McGahn’s direction and with McConnell’s support, managed to get on to virtually every federal court in the country.”

It's thus not surprising that Jones Day is representing the plaintiffs in Arnesen v. Raimondo.

That means that the lawsuit’s potential threat to the federal fishery management system needs to be taken seriously.  In the past, if NMFS lost because a trial court judge rendered a legally iffy decision, the agency could probably salvage the issue on appeal.  Today, the taint of the judges McGahn selected extends throughout the appellate court system, and reaches the highest court in the land.

That raises an important question.  If the regional fishery management councils lose their power to craft management measures, what will take their place?  In theory, the regulatory function could be assumed within NMFS and the Commerce Department, as the Arnesen complaint seems to suggest, but the agency is far too thinly staffed to be able to handle the work now performed by the members and staff of the regional fishery management councils.

Furthermore, because of the very explicit language of Magnuson-Stevens with respect to the regional fishery management councils’ role, it’s not at all clear that actions taken by the agency, without council input, wouldn’t themselves be vulnerable to legal challenges, as acts beyond agency authority.

We probably couldn’t look to Congress to fix the problem, as partisan bickering, and the inevitable conflict between one party’s focus on conservation and management and the others’ drive to monetize natural resources, almost certainly assures that any so-called “fix” would not come close to replacing the system that was lost.

That doesn’t bode well for our fisheries, should the plaintiffs prevail.

In 1955, author Robert Ruark released his first novel, Something of Value.  According to the frontispiece of the book, the title came from the advice,

“If a man does away with his traditional way of living and throws away his good customs, he had better first make certain that he has something of value to replace them.”

It is advice that plaintiffs Arnesen and Bradley would do well to heed.


Thursday, July 20, 2023



According to the most recent information, the striped bass stock remains overfished.  The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s striped bass management plan requires that it be fully rebuilt by 2029, but given the current trajectory of the stock, such rebuilding remains unlikely.  Thus, at its May meeting, the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board adopted emergency management measures intended to combat a recent increase in recreational landings, which nearly doubled (when measured in numbers of fish, and more than doubled when measured in pounds) between 2021 and 2022.

The emergency measures were intended to be just a stopgap, and are nowhere near enough to put rebuilding back on track.  On August 1, the Management Board will consider a new draft Addendum II to its management plan, and even that will probably need to be enhanced by more restrictive regulations once a new update to the stock assessment is released in the fall of 2024.

Even such relatively modest stopgap measures, because they were adopted without prior public comment, had to be addressed in a series of four public hearings that were held later in May; what was said at those hearings probably foretells the shape of the debate over Addendum II.

A memo written by Emilie Franke, the ASMFC’s Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for striped bass, reveals that 224 stakeholders attended the hearings, and that 94 provided oral comments.  Of those comments, 62 supported the emergency management measures, while 24 opposed them (the other comments did not directly address the emergency measures).  While those numbers demonstrate a healthy, if not overwhelming, 72% level of support for the emergency measures, they also overstate public opposition to the emergency measures.

Ms. Franke’s memo notes that

“62 people, including representatives from 11 organizations, commented in support of the emergency action.  Comments noted support for taking proactive, swift action to protect the strong 2015 year class so those fish can contribute to the spawning stock biomass and rebuild the stock.  Comments noted the importance of the 2015 year class and the need to get those fish out of the slot limit, especially considering recent low recruitment and the lack of strong younger year classes.  Some comments noted the importance of all sectors contributing equally to stock rebuilding…”

In other words, those supporting the emergency management measures were concerned with the long-term well being of the striped bass, and were willing to make the sacrifices needed to rebuild the stock.

Ms. Franke’s memo also noted that

“24 people, primarily charter captains, and including representatives of 3 organizations, commented in opposition to the emergency action.  Comments noted the narrow slot limit will increase recreational releases and mortality due to fishing longer to find a fish within the slot.  Comments noted this action only targets those who harvest striped bass, and that there should be measures to address the catch-and-release fishery.  Comments noted the negative economic impacts of the narrow slot limit on for-hire businesses, and expressed support for managing the for-hire sector separate from private recreational anglers.  Some noted concern about the accuracy and use of MRIP data.”

Thus, unlike the general public, those opposing the emergency measures were concerned with the short-term impacts of such measures on themselves, not the resource, the public and the bass be damned.

But that’s OK; self-interest is always a potent motivator; the for-hires’ opposition was completely predictable from the moment that the emergency action was passed.

But what many people, and very possibly even many members of the Management Board, probably don’t realize is just how small the for-hire sector is, at least with respect to the striped bass fishery.  On average, since 2017, anglers have taken a little under 17 million trips per year primarily targeting striped bass (annual trips held remarkably steady, even during the peak COVID year, at somewhere between 15.7 and 16.7 million, until spiking to over 20 million last year).  Of those trips, only about 300,000 were taken aboard for-hire boats.

Thus, for hire boats account for well under 2% of all directed striped bass trips (1.67 over the last five years or, to address the impacts of COVID, 1.80% for the five years including 2017-2019 and 2021-2022).  However one chooses to make the calculation, the for-hire fleet doesn’t contribute all that much to the social and economic benefits accruing from the recreational striped bass fishery, which is overwhelmingly the province of shore-based fishermen and private boats.

Thus, while the for-hires may have accounted for 28% of the comments--all opposed--on the emergency action, we can never forget that they also only represent 2% of the striped bass fishery.  That 2% figure places their comments in a far clearer context than the 28% figure, standing alone, ever could.

On the other hand, the for-hires’ current share of striped bass landings is substantial, and disproportionately high.  For the same 2018-2022 period, for-hire vessels accounted for 11.99% of the entire recreational striped bass harvest, a number that drops very slightly, to 11.79%, if the years are adjusted to account for COVID by using the five-year period that begins in 2017 and omits 2020.

Thus, the for-hire fleet already lands about six times the number of fish that might be predicted by the number of trips taken on for-hire boats.  Yet they’re still looking for special privileges that would allow them to take more, at least in comparison with the rest of the angling sector.

That seems an unreasonable ask.  As Dr. Michael Armstrong, a Massachusetts fishery manager noted in an article published in the Boston Globe last May,

“For next year, everything is going to be looked at, and if fishing mortality has to be cut, it will need to involve the commercial fishery too.  They won’t get a pass on this one.  There will be debate, and they will be arguing that they didn’t cause this, but at some point if you’re part of the harvest you need to be part of the solution.”

Although Dr. Armstrong was specifically addressing the commercial fleet when he made the comment, his logic clearly applies to the for-hire fleet as well.

It should also be noted that the for-hire fleet is not in unanimous opposition to the emergency action.  While three regional organizations, including the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association, the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association, and the Montauk Boatmens and Captains Assocation, opposed the emergency measures, two other for-hire organizations, the Maine Association of Charterboat Captains and the American Saltwater Guides Association—the latter not a mere regional group, but an organization that includes members in every state along the striper coast, as well as in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico—strongly supported the Management Board’s action; some individual captains supported the emergency measures as well.

That being the case, the conflict over the emergency rules—as well as the inevitable upcoming conflict over Addendum II—is not a conflict between private anglers and the for-hire fleet, but rather one waged between those who are willing to change to accommodate the current demands of both the fish and the fishery, and those who insist that the regulatory environment must change to accommodate their own desires.

Canadian author Louise Penny once noted that

“Life is change.  If you aren’t growing and evolving, you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead.”

Some members of the for-hire fleet have accepted the need to adapt to the times, and have adopted business models that allow them to take advantage of new opportunities when old approaches are no longer profitable.  They recognize that one of the most basic imperatives in business can be summed up as “Chege or die.”

Yet professional fishermen, whether commercial or for-hire, tend to be “small-c” conservatives, with their outlook, if not necessarily their politics, driven by an aversion to change.  Thus, in this third decade of the 21st Century, they cling to a business model that originated just after—or perhaps before—the Second World War, that could be summed up as “Leave the dock.  Find fish.  Kill fish.  Bring fish back to the dock for your fares to take home.”

It’s kind of funny but, as anyone who has jigged parachutes from a charter boat’s cockpit can tell you, such a business model doesn’t necessarily even involve the fares enjoying themselves; they might have to spend hours jigging with wire line, or sit in a chair, cranking in umbrella rigs festooned with striped bass, while the boat chugs relentlessly forward, or engage in other, similar labors intended solely to put fish on ice.  Having an enjoyable and rewarding outdoor experience is not the primary goal; any reward, under such model, takes the form of good catch, and not necessarily a good time. 

It is, in many ways, a commercial philosophy wrapped in recreational trappings.  Pinhookers--commercial fishermen who employ rod and reel--use about the same productive, if uninspiring, tactics that the charter boats do.

Their commitment to that unchanging, “the way we always did it” approach was brought home a month or so ago, when I heard from a friend, who is also a charter boat captain, describing something he witnessed at Montauk this spring.

“I thought I’d seen it all.  Yesterday Montauk with the fish pushing tiny sand eels tight to the beach in a blitz a well known charter boat insisted on trolling parallel to the shore trying to pull wire thru 7 feet of water.  This despite clear signs all you needed to do was lob an Ava jig and make a few cranks…

“It was amazing they went back and forth a few times and didn’t put them down.  My son thought it was very funny.”

It may have been very funny, but it was also very illustrative of many for-hire’s mindset.

The captain in question was clearly out to put bass in the boat, and was doing what he always did to accomplish that goal.  Never mind that fishing wire resembles work more than play, and that his customers probably would have taken far more pleasure from casting to and hooking the blitzing fish, and fighting them to the boat, rather than winching in bass being dragged through the water on a pool-cue rod and wire line.  It’s even possible that, if none of the blitzing bass fell within the legal slot, his customers might even have enjoyed themselves so much that they wouldn’t have minded going home with an empty cooler.

But their enjoyment wasn’t the point.  The captain saw his job as killing bass, and tried, to to the best of his ability, to get that job done.

And that brings us right into the middle of an important policy discussion that, unfortunately, has yet to occur at the management table:  If an industry is so averse to change that clings to a business model even though, pursuant to such model, it cannot survive unless its customers are awarded special privileges that allow it to harvest a public resource at a far greater rate than the rest of the public, does it make sense to subsidize that industry with a disproportionate share of that public resource?  

Or does it make more sense to let the industry make its own choice to change or not change, grant no special privileges, and let economic and social forces decide its fate?

If an industry cannot both abide by and thrive pursuant to the science-based management measures that regulate all other participants in the fishery, how does the industry's continued survival benefit the public as a whole?

Right now, all available information suggests that the striped bass stock is facing real problems.  That being the case, as Dr. Armstrong noted, “if you’re part of the harvest you need to be a part of the solution.” 

I might have chosen to add, “If you take a disproportionate share of the harvest, you ought to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden,” but I’m not going to take things that far.  I am, however, going to argue that no one, whether private angler, for-hire operator, or commercial fisherman, should get away with contributing less than others to the striped bass’ recovery.

If someone wants a full share of the bounty, they must accept a full share of the burden as well.



Sunday, July 16, 2023



Fisheries don’t collapse all at once. Instead, they telegraph their distress with signals that may be subtle at the start, but grow more insistent as stocks decline.

Often, at least in the case of migratory stocks, the first sign of trouble might be a contraction of the fish’s range. On the East Coast of the United States, most migratory inshore species have centers of seasonal abundance. There is a core summer range, where the fish feed and are most abundant after their northward migration, and there is typically a core winter range, where they escape the worst of the cold.

Striped bass provide a good example.

Although scattered fish may appear anywhere along the coast during the summer, the species’ core summer range extends from eastern Long Island to southern Cape Cod, and includes both Block Island and the Elizabeth Islands off Massachusetts. Even when the striped bass population was at its lowest ebb during the early 1980s, fishermen could often find significant concentrations of fish, including some very large individuals, around Block Island, the outer Cape Cod beaches, and elsewhere in that core range, at a time when it was extremely difficult for anglers to locate even one bass anywhere else.

But when an increasing population creates more competitive pressure, fish begin to spread out from the core into the extremes of their range. Thus, Maine can see very good striped bass fishing when the stock is healthy but, because it is also the first state to feel the effects of a shrinking population, it is a bellwether for stock decline.

The November 2011 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Bass Board) illustrated how that works. An update to the striped bass stock assessment had just been released. It advised that the population was declining, and would become overfished within six years.

Massachusetts biologist Gary Nelson, who was presenting the assessment update, explained, “The striped bass stock is contracting [its range] because of getting small, fish tend to do that. They like primary [range] and then if the population is too big, they start to expand [their range]. Maine is at the edge of the distribution. When the population is going down, you’re going to see fewer fish there simply because of that impact.”

Unfortunately, the Bass Board didn’t heed the warning signs, and the most recent benchmark stock assessment found that the stock had, in fact, become overfished by 2017.

A change in the size of fish caught, or the absence of large or small fish in a population, can also be a sign of future problems. It is well known that fishing can lead to truncation of the age and size structure of a fish population. Thus, when fishermen begin encountering fewer older and larger fish than they had before, it is a good indication that fishing mortality has increased, perhaps to unsustainable levels.


The health of a stock is also threatened when there are too few young fish entering the population to replace the older individuals removed by both fishing and natural mortality. A stock of fish composed mostly of larger individuals may entertain anglers for a brief time, but at the risk of eventual, and likely, collapse. Both the collapse of the Atlantic striped bass stock in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the collapse of the southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder twenty years later, were preceded by long periods of recruitment failure that created declining populations made up largely of older individuals.


As stocks enter deeper declines, fish become harder for fishermen to find, and scientific assessments eventually reveal that the stock is either overfished, experiencing overfishing or, as with the 2011 striped bass assessment, at least well on the way to crossing one or both of those thresholds.

Unfortunately, fishermen, whether recreational or commercial, rarely heed the first signs of trouble. Too often, particularly when short-term economic consequences might ensue, they tend to be like children whistling as they walk past a graveyard, trying to deny their fear of the ghosts and ghouls that might be residing therein; instead of recognizing and addressing impending threats to a stock, fishermen often aggressively deny that any such threats exist.

That can have dire consequences for the fisheries involved, for while ghosts and ghouls don’t really exist, threats to many heavily exploited fisheries are all too real, and they can cause very serious harm if ignored.

I was reminded of that once again when I attended the most recent meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council (MRAC). One of the topics on the agenda was the emergency management action taken by the Bass Board at its May meeting, which set a maximum size of 31 inches for striped bass, effectively reducing the 28- to 35-inch slot limit in place along most of the coast to a narrow, 28- to 31-inch slot. Such action was taken to reduce recreational landings, which spiked in 2022, to more sustainable levels.


Recent data developed by fishery managers makes it clear that the striped bass stock is experiencing some serious problems. The stock, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, remains overfished, although the spawning stock has been expanding slowly, and it’s likely that spawning stock biomass will creep above the biomass threshold at some point this year.

But that will probably be only a temporary reprieve.

In Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, which is the single most important striped bass spawning ground, the Maryland juvenile striped bass abundance index (JAI) is crashing. The average JAI for 2019 through 2022 is the lowest four-year average in the 65-year history of the Maryland survey; even during the early 1980s, when the striped bass stock had collapsed, no four-year period ever quite reached that nadir.


Cold winters and cool, wet springs are usually needed to produce strong year classes of striped bass. The winter of 2022-23 was unusually warm, and was followed by a warm spring that saw low water flows in the Chesapeake tributaries. Such conditions set the stage for what will probably be another very low JAI.

That’s going to leave a big hole in the striped bass age structure, with at least four, and probably five, year classes largely absent from the population. This year, one of the things that I’m noticing, and that I’m hearing from others, is that fish less than 24 inches or so in length have been scarce in most places this season.

That’s not a good sign.

Yet those who stand to be the most heavily impacted by the decline in striped bass abundance, commercial fishermen and owner/operators of for-hire vessels, seem to be trying very hard to convince themselves that the striped bass stock is not facing an imminent problem.

One MRAC member, who operates a charter boat on eastern Long Island, seemed almost stunned by the thought that striped bass abundance will, almost inevitably, decline. He kept talking about how many fish he was seeing now, noting that he was catching bass of all sizes “from about 24 inches up.” He effectively acknowledged that his customers weren’t catching striped bass any smaller than that, but couldn’t connect the current lack of small fish with a future decline in the spawning stock. Instead, he asked the rhetorical question, “Are you telling me that when the 2015s are gone, there won’t be any striped bass?” and then shook his head and declared “I don’t believe that.”

Another for-hire operator in the audience rose to say that one of his closest friends was a Maryland biologist who did striped bass work, and who supposedly told him that environmental conditions in the Maryland area were so bad that “we can forget about Chesapeake Bay.” He went on to assert that ocean conditions were changing, waters were getting warmer farther north, and somehow—he didn’t try to explain the mechanism involved—the bass will end up doing just fine, without the need for the emergency action, as other fish from other, unnamed places replaced those spawned in the Chesapeake Bay.

It was magical thinking at its best.

The only problem was that magic, like ghosts and ghouls, isn’t real, while spawning failure in Maryland’s waters is.

I eventually spoke, supporting the emergency measures, and spent a little time comparing the current Maryland spawning data with that which was developed 45 years ago, when fishery managers failed to respond to poor spawning success (the Bass Board had no legal authority to take binding action back then) and the bass stock quickly collapsed. I was only citing the JAI data and referencing historical facts, but out in the audience the head of one of New York’s largest party and charter boat organizations apparently didn’t want to hear it; he made a loud, exasperated noise, quickly stood up, and walked out of the room.

At that point, a commercial MRAC member tried to assure everyone that the problem was with the data, not the striped bass, questioning the accuracy of the Maryland JAI, the stock assessment, and the recreational landings data from 2022. To him, there was no such thing as good fisheries data; it was all nothing but guesses. He declared that the striped bass were doing fine, and no mere numbers were going to change his mind.

Other people took similar tacks, arguing that the 2022 recreational landings estimate was “just a single data point,” suggesting that the Marine Recreational Information Program data was wrong, and that emergency action could not be justified unless the validity of that data could be confirmed, perhaps by fishing for another year under the same 2022 rules. There was a certain irony in their words, as on one hand, they argued that no emergency action was needed, as they were catching more bass now than they had in years, and on the other hand, they argued that the data showing them catching and keeping so many more fish was somehow suspect.


As the discussion ended, another long-time commercial fisherman declared, “The striped bass will be here after you’re gone.” He offered no facts to support his opinion but still, we can only hope that he’s right.

More recently, the Montauk Boatmen and Captains Association posted a petition on, challenging the Bass Board’s emergency action. The petition notes that “more than 75% of our charter boat fleet focuses the bulk of their season on striped bass fishing…Striped bass fishing is truly the ‘bread and butter’ for most of our for-hire fishing fleet.” The petition then goes on to characterize the emergency measures as “drastic, unreasonable, and unnecessary,” and “preposterous” as well.


But it never explains why, at least from the bass’ perspective.

Instead, the objections to the emergency action were couched in purely economic terms. The state of the striped bass stock was never mentioned. It was almost as if the fleet was trying to convince itself that if fishery managers took care of their economic concerns, the bass would somehow take care of themselves.

Unfortunately, biology doesn’t work that way. Fishermen can’t catch fish, whether for sale or for pleasure, if those fish have never been spawned. Overfishing will not lead to a rebuilt stock. Fishing mortality must be reduced to a level that, given current recruitment levels, allows the stock to rebuild.

Fishermen can tell themselves that the emergency measures aren’t needed to rebuild striped bass. They can try to make themselves believe that the bass are doing just fine. But peer-reviewed science, and the bass themselves, are telling us something very different.

We would all do well to listen.

Or we could find ourselves whistling past a very different sort of graveyard.


This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at