Thursday, February 22, 2024



One of the hot issues in fisheries management over the past few years has been “sector separation” or “mode splits,” the concept that the for-hire fleet should be governed by special regulations that allow its customers to retain more fish or smaller fish than anglers fishing from private boats or from shore, and perhaps also fish during seasons closed to other members of the angling community,

Sometimes, there has been good reason to put such special rules in place.  The best example may have been the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, which saw private boat anglers kill so many snapper within (or, at least, supposedly within) state waters that federally-permitted for-hire boats were left with an impossibly short season—at one point, a season that only lasted three days.  In that case, creating different sets of rules for private and for-hire vessels merely leveled a playing field that was thrown badly off-center by the excesses of the private boat fleet.

But when the for-hire fleet in the northeast and mid-Atlantic talk about sector separation and mode splits, they’re not just seeking parity with shore-based anglers and those who fish from private vessels.  Instead, they’re seeking special privileges that elevate their anglers above the rest of the recreational fishermen, and let them kill more fish than everyone else is allowed.

That effort became very apparent in the recently concluded debate over Addendum II to Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which saw the for-hire fleet make a concerted effort to expand their slot size limit in the ocean fishery to 28 to 33 inches, while private boat and shore-based anglers were constrained to a 28- to 31-inch slot.  In the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland for-hires were attempting to cling to their own special privileges, a 2-fish bag limit that contrasted sharply with the 1-fish bag that applied to the rest of the recreational fishery.

In the end, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board decided that an angler was an angler, no matter what platform they decided to fish from, and denied the for-hires the special rules that they sought.

Some of the for-hires are still throwing tantrums about that decision.

Perhaps the most spectacular of those occurred earlier this week in Talbot County, Maryland, where the Delmarva Fisheries Association and the Maryland Charter Boat Association co-hosted a meeting of commercial fishermen and for-hire operators, giving them a chance to complain about the ASMFC forcing them to share some of the burden of conserving the same striped bass resource that they profit from throughout the season.  

The for-hires would have much preferred to leave that responsibility up to the private boat fleet and the folks who fish from the shore.

Thus, the organizers of the event also invited some local politicians, lawyers, and representatives from a public relations firm, trying to spread news of their grievances far and wide (although, given that I have only seen one local publication, The Star Democrat, pick up the story so far, the PR folks might not have been needed).  There was also talk of bringing a federal lawsuit against the ASMFC, but given the 2010 appellate court decision in New York v. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the ASMFC probably isn't too concerned about that.

The Maryland charter boat operators were united in the belief that the one-fish bag limit would not only harm their businesses, but also limit the profits of other enterprises that are supported by striped bass anglers.  Capt. Brian Hardman, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, seemed particularly outraged over the pending regulations.  According to the Star Democrat, he fumed about the ASMFC’s ability to impose management measures on coastal states, and whined,

“I can’t believe that…other states can dictate how a business is run in the state of Maryland, and how they can create financial havoc on businesses in the state of Maryland.”

Such comment ignored the history of the ASMFC and its empowering legislation, the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act and the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which gave the ASMFC the right to impose its preferred management measures on states after the last striped bass stock collapse precisely because, when left on their own, some states were more interested in protecting their businesses than they were in protecting and rebuilding the depleted striped bass population.

Eventually, Hardman made what might have been the most interesting comment of the night, saying

“Give us our own quota like the commercial guys.  We are a commercial entity; give us our own quota and then leave us alone.  If we fish it out, that’s our problem.”

The more that I think about that comment, the more that I believe that Hardman is right.  It makes sense for the for-hires to have their own quota.

Folks who have been reading this blog for a while might be surprised that I wrote that, as I have long been adamantly opposed to extending special privileges to for-hire anglers.  As I noted in a post a few weeks ago, doingso creates an elite group within the angling community, which is grantedprivileges not enjoyed by the common rabble who fish from their own boats orfrom shore.  I believe that an angler is an angler is an angler, regardless of the platform that they choose to fish from.

Thus, I thought that New York was wrong back in 1995, when it awarded its for-hire fleet a two-fish striped bass bag limit, while everyone else was restricted to one (for the record I, and most other serious striped bass anglers in the state, wanted one fish at 36 inches for everyone, not the two at 28 inches that the for-hires sought).

And I still think that it’s wrong for the ASMFC and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to create a special “bonus season” for scup that allows for-hire anglers to retain more fish than other recreational fishermen, and also to create a special five-fish bluefish bag limit for the same for-hire anglers, while restricting everyone else to retaining just three, particularly because those anglers’ landings are included in the same annual calculations as the landings of the less privileged masses.

But that’s not what Hardman was talking about.  He was talking about regulating an entire industry, and not just a few anglers that, aside from the platform they fished from, were indistinguishable from the whole. 

And that’s probably a good idea.

The constant refrain of the for-hire fleet is that it needs to kill more fish than anyone else, in order to retain its clients.  So perhaps it’s time to let them do so, within reasonable restraints.

Perhaps it’s time to carve for-hire anglers out of the recreational sector, and put them in a sector of their own.  It’s not a new idea; the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act already defines three different modes of fishing, providing that

“The term ‘charter fishing’ means fishing from a vessel carrying a passenger for hire…who is engaged in recreational fishing;”

“The term ‘commercial fishing’ means fishing in which the fish harvested, either in whole or in part, are intended to enter commerce or enter commerce through sale, barter, or trade;”


“The term ‘recreational fishing’ means fishing for sport or pleasure.”

Thus, even though Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t govern the recreational striped bass fishery, which may be legally pursued only within state waters, the law nonetheless sets out a practical definition of the three sectors that could guide the creation of a separate striped bass “charter fishing” sector.

Once the ASMFC established a separate charter fishing sector, it would be a simple thing to create a baseline charter fishing allocation, both for the coast and for individual states, denoted in either fish or in pounds, based on what the charter fishing sector caught under current regulations and the current condition of the striped bass stock.  

To be sure that they get the allocation right, the ASMFC could base it on the for-hire boats’ vessel trip reports, rather than the admittedly uncertain estimates created by the Marine Recreational Information Program, as in both the Addendum II debate and in debates addressing other fisheries issues, for-hire representatives repeatedly assert that such VTRs represent the best data with respect to for-hire landings.

Although some for-hire operators might chafe at allocations  based on landings governed by the current 28- to 31-inch slot limit, such concerns are not justified by the landings data.  According to MRIP (unfortunately, VTR data isn’t readily available to the public), 2023 for-hire landings were not driven to historically low levels as a result of the 28- to 31-inch slot. 

Instead, 2023’s estimated landings of 271,620striped bass caught from for-hire boats fell within the range of annual for-hire landings for theperiod 2015 through 2023 (such years were chosen because they’re subsequent to the ASMFC’s adoption of Addendum IV to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan, which introduced a one-fish bag and 28-inch minimum size for all coastal states—although conservation-equivalent measures were still allowed), ranking 6th in the 9-year time series.  2023 landings were greater than for-hire landingsin 2016, 2018, and 2020, even though in such earlier years, either a 28-inch minimum size or a 28- to 35-inch slot limit prevailed. 

Four New England states, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, actually had higherlandings in 2023 than they had in 2021, although Connecticut’s increase was small enough to be statistically insignificant (2022 landings were higher in most coastal states, but since the purpose of the new, narrower slot wasto reduce landings from 2022 levels, that fact is not relevant to this discussion).  New Jersey’s 2023 landingsdecreased by about 13.6% compared to 2021, although it’s not clear how much of that decrease was due to the elimination of the conservation-equivalent regulations that prevailed in the earlier year.  Only two coastal states, Rhode Island and New York saw for-hire landingsdecrease significantly in 2023 compared to 2021; such landings decreased by 31.7% and 43.4%, respectively.  For the rest of the coast, the narrower slot had no significant impact on for-hire landings.

Thus, for most states, establishing state quotas should be a relatively painless process.  States should then be required to issue tags to their for-hire operators, as is already the case with the commercial fishery, and require those tags to be attached before a bass is put in the fish box, to best assure that the sector quota is not exceeded.  The number of tags issued would change along with striped bass abundance; if the Management Board adopted a new addendum in response to an increase in the spawning stock biomass, the charter sector quota would be increased as well, while if a decline in the stock brought required more restrictive management, the number of tags would be cut.

Most of the remaining regulation could be left up to the states, although the Management Board might want to set a coastwide size limit to assure that important year classes of fish are protected.  Otherwise, with the tagging requirement in place, it would be up to the states to decide whether to impose a bag limit or season, knowing that once a for-hire boat used up all of its tags, no matter how quickly or slowly it did so, it would be out of the fishery for the rest of the season, unless the state also decided to make tags transferrable, and allow for-hire operators to buy and sell tags as the need to do so arose.

Of course, if a state exceeded its charter fishing quota in any year, pound-for pound (or fish-for-fish) paybacks would be imposed in the following season.

Such a sector-specific approach to management would allow for-hire operators to make market-based decisions as to when, and how quickly, to utilize their available tags, in order to optimize their income.  It would also allow them to adopt bag limits and seasons that might be different from those preferred by private boat and shore-based anglers, without placing additional stresses on the striped bass resource.

It is, I believe, an approach worth exploring, which could pave the way for similar management of not only striped bass, but other species where the for-hire fleet believes it might benefit from management measures different from those which bind the larger part of the angling community.



  1. Giving the For Hire their own quota has always been something I've wanted to see. If you think about it, having them in the Recreational category is the same as being "Half Pregnant". They are a commercial interest and should learn how to maximize their business by adjusting their practices for the most profitable operation within their quota.

    1. It done right, it would remove a lot of the current acrimony. The only risk is that they would seek a quota based on their proportion of landings 20 years ago, that doesn't reflect their share of today's fishery.