FEB 2021 @ ASMFC: HERE’S WHAT WENT DOWN…

Striped bass and recreational reform top the agenda

By Capt. John McMurray

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met via webinar last week (February 1-4) to discuss several important topics.  We’ll try and keep it simple here and focus on just the things anglers are likely to find most important. 

On the top of that list, of course, is striped bass. 

Striped Bass

The Striped Bass Board met on Wednesday, primarily to approve the Public Information Document (PID) for Amendment 7. 

We can’t stress enough how important this document is, because it really does have the potential to fundamentally change the way we manage striped bass, and it could subsequently and profoundly change the striped bass fishery for decades.  At stake here is whether the Commission chooses to emphasize harvest over coastal availability.  Or, to put it simply, whether a small group of stakeholders who profit from extraction take precedence over the vast majority who benefit from coastal abundance.  

We’ll get to this in a minute, but first it’s important to touch on the Technical Committee (TC) Report on discard mortality (those recreationally caught fish that die post-release). 

Recreational discards

As readers likely know, the estimated discard mortality rate for striped bass, across the board, is 9%.  That figure is based on a study done in 1996, conducted by catching fish in an enclosed salt pond via a variety of methods, then surveying that pond to see how many had survived.  Without getting into the validity of the study and its conclusions, anecdotal/on-the-water experience indicates that 9% is probably not far off the mark.  In fact, considering other species’ estimated release mortality rates, one in eleven fish released dying isn’t bad, at all.    

As readers also likely know, striped bass are one of, if not the most, valued fish by anglers from the Mid-Atlantic to New England, and thus recreational fishing effort on striped bass is very high, particularly given their increasing availability from the late ‘90s all the way up to 2012 (it’s very clear that abundance drives effort).   And given that an estimated 90% of all striped bass are released, well, that 9% number extrapolated across a huge angling population really adds up.  In fact, it adds up to almost 50% of total striped bass removals.  Thus, whether justified or not, recreational discards have become a big concern of the Board’s. 

What’s important to keep in mind though is that, well, fish that aren’t released have a 100% mortality rate, whereas 10 out of 11 fish released swim away unharmed.  So it’s been incredibly frustrating when some Commissioners seem to argue that we need to lower size limits and increase bag limits to reduce discards (i.e., one of the main arguments for going with a 28” to 35” slot limit rather than a 35” minimum size limit).

While common sense doesn’t seem to be the primary driver behind many Commission discussions, it should be abundantly clear that constraining measures like higher size limits result in a clear reduction in fishing mortality.  And yes, the TC has explained more than once, that increasing a size limit does result in a small discard mortality increase, yet it also results in an exponential savings. 

From all this, one would think that it should be very clear that some level of discard mortality is to be expected, and simply considered part of what has undoubtedly become primarily a “sport” fishery (90% recreational, 90% of which is catch-and-release according to the Commission). 

But that’s NOT what has come to pass.  The discard mortality issue has become a red herring for the harvest-focused folks.  A way to shift the blame from that which we can actually control to that which we can’t, at least not without time and area closures to control effort which are not only unpopular, but extraordinarily difficult to enforce. 

With all of this in mind, the TC did some analysis on different release mortality rates – from a best-case scenario of 3% to a worst case of 26%.  What did that analysis tell us?  Well, nothing really.  The worst case when plugged into the model did result in a higher spawning stock biomass than previously thought.  The best case, well, the opposite. 

But the main finding was that improving/revising discard mortality rates would not have changed the conclusions in the last benchmark stock assessment.  In other words, even if we had reduced discard mortality to 3% years ago, we’d generally be in the same place we are now with the stock overfished and overfishing occurring.

What’s the takeaway from all this?  Well, it’s that discard mortality is only a part of the management puzzle; it isn’t the reason that the stock became overfished, and it isn’t the smoking gun a lotta folks wanted it to be.  It never was. 

While the Commission seems loath to admit it, it’s pretty clear what happened.  The Striped Bass Board, under pressure from the usual bad actors, disregarded the clear warning signs in 2011 that the stock would become overfished if fishing mortality wasn’t reduced.  The board blew that warning off, hedging all their bets on a large 2011 year-class which, arguably, could have been wiped out by a huge overage by Maryland in 2015, when the 2011s were super abundant and available to the state.  With a new stock assessment in 2013 that clearly indicated overfishing was occurring, the Board reacted with a 25% reduction, but had zero appetite to comply with its management plan and rebuild the stock back to the biomass target its scientists had established.  Conservation equivalency regulations with subsequent overages and zero accountability allowed and currently allow states to game the system. And then, in 2018, we got another stock assessment, which told us that not only were we overfishing, but unsurprisingly the stock had become overfished.  And while the Board reacted with another 18% reduction – responding with measures that have only a 40% chance of reaching that target – again, they punted on rebuilding.   

Discard mortality aside, with decisions like that being made, well what did we expect? 

All this being said, we do still need to work on reducing discard mortality.  The TC’s analysis was looking back in time.  Had the rate been 3% or 26% we’d still be in the same place, and that is almost undoubtedly because of bad management decisions. 

Looking forward though, in the context of rebuilding the stock, if we can reduce the discard mortality rate – and there’s certainly no guarantee that we can – it would lower the total fishing mortality on striped bass, significantly.  Darn right that would help the stock rebuild. 

Which brings us to where we are now with Amendment 7.

Amendment 7 Public Information Document

Before the Board got into this, there was an update on the timing of the next stock assessment update.  As we all suspected, there will be no update until 2022 because the pandemic prohibited comprehensive recreational data collection in 2020.  That’s unfortunate as we really have no idea how the slot limit may have changed the fishery, and whether or not it (along with the conservation equivalent regulations in some states) achieved the required 18% reduction.  Anecdotal reports indicate a pretty substantial increase in effort, but we don’t what sort of mortality occurred.  I’m the first one to admit that there were a ton of fish over 35” released, as well as a ton under 28”.  Fish in the slot weren’t all that abundant.  But the truth is we really just don’t know. 

It’s also important to note here that the state of Massachusetts has been working on a discard mortality study, as well a genetics study that could help managers understand where stripers that migrate into New England originated. Both would most certainly be helpful in the context of the Amendment development. 

Yes, postponing Amendment 7 development until we had a stock assessment update was discussed, albeit very briefly.  It quickly became clear that the Board had no appetite to delay.

And so, while Amendment 7 appeared to be the primary agenda item, it was dispensed with surprisingly quickly.  Here’s why. 

At the fall meeting we went through the document and the board made some edit suggestions to parts of the document.  The staff went back with those suggestions and made the edits, which were presented to the Board via email beforehand.

With only a little bit of discussion, mostly in regard to some objectionable language about whether or not the stock can actually rebuild (there is NO science-based indication that it can’t) the Board voted that the document be put out to the public. 

What’s next?  There will be a public comment period, which will likely take place soon.  There will be virtual hearings in states from Maine to North Carolina.  And we can’t emphasize enough how important it is for people who depend on coastal abundance to engage. 

It is no joke that the future of this fishery, and whether or not guys like us can stay in business, is at stake. 

Stay tuned on this.  In future posts we will list the issues in the document and provide guidance on how to comment on each. 

Next the Board covered circle hook exemptions. 

Circle hook exemptions

Addendum VI – the reaction to the 2018 stock assessment which put the coastal slot limit in place in hopes to achieve an 18% reduction – also required the use of circle hooks in cut and live bait fisheries in all states by this year. 

And so, at the fall Commission meeting, the Board approved state compliance programs. 

At that meeting, there were requests to exempt from the circle hook requirement the Massachusetts party/charter boat fleet – for no compelling reason that we heard – as well as gear specific exemptions for “tube-and-worm” trolled baits and bucktail-jig/pork-rind combos.  The board ended up rejecting those exemptions.  It should be obvious why the party/charter exemption was rejected, but the tube-and-worm/bucktail-pork-rind exemption was really just common sense.  I mean, the intent of the circle hook requirement seemed clear:  Reduce gut-hooking mortality by requiring a circle hook on either live or cut bait.  Certainly, it wasn’t to prevent natural baits from being used in trolled or worked artificial baits tipped with “attractants.”  Yet, because there were a few people on the board who were/are misinformed or simply thought such exemptions might open up loop-holes or create a “slippery slope” situation where consideration of a landslide of gear types would require exemption, such exemptions were voted down. 

At this meeting, at the request of the state of Maine and Massachusetts, who were asking for a tube-and-worm exemption while they complete a study of gut-hook incidence with such gear type, the exemptions were revisited.  (note:  Just about EVERYONE with a cursory understanding of the fishery understands there is little to NO gut-hook incidence in this fishery, so arguably such a study isn’t necessary). 

What followed was an extraordinarily long and painful conversation about whether or not we should allow such an exemption. Frankly what transpired was more than irritating.  Totally lost was the commonsense truth that tube-and-worm, bucktails tipped with pork-rinds etc. – really any artificial tipped with an attractant – was NEVER intended to be part of the circle hook requirement, because, well, they don’t result in significant gut hooking.  And it was hard for a lot of us to understand how some Commissioners didn’t already know that.   Perhaps they did understand this, but couldn’t let it go in any case, for reasons that are difficult to understand.  This is especially confusing in light of the fact that any phantom increase in discard mortality would be negligible in the management scheme. 

All this said, it is NOT unusual for the Commission to go down such rabbit holes on issues that could and should be dispensed with in a matter of minutes.  As mentioned, common sense often succumbs to over-analysis, and decisions which should be easy are intentionally made difficult. 

In the end, the Board approved Massachusetts’ and Maine’s request to conduct a study while allowing a tube-and-worm exemption for two years.  Regarding the other gear types?  Well, that was addressed by a motion to develop a committee which would ultimately decide on a definition of “bait that would require the use of circle hooks”.  That committee will report back to the Board some time in March.    

Seems like we could have made a few commonsense exemptions to the circle hook requirement in a motion in well under 15 minutes and moved on, but well, this is simply how the Commission does business. 

Let’s move on to Recreational Accountability and maybe a few other things of concern.

Recreational Accountability

The Council and Commission have been moving forward on a “Recreational Management Reform” initiative for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish.  This is really just a way to get around some of the arguably unreasonably constraining requirements of federal law and to avoid having to adhere firmly to the data that isn’t always believable.  Like using multi-year regulationss instead of revisiting them every year, developing a process for smoothing out data outliers and allowing more flexibility (i.e., taking on more risk).  It should be noted here that “sector separation” – specific allocation to the party/charter fleet – is on this list.  This is a can of worms we’re not going to get into here, but it is definitely something on our radar, and we will follow its development in this process. 

More concerning though is the “Harvest Control Rule” several recreational fishing orgs are pushing, and which appears to be a top priority for recreational reform.  We’re not really sure how it’s going to work yet, but the gist is that stakeholders (presumably party/charter folks) would set upper and lower limits that in practice would correspond with stock abundance.  In other words, the lower limits would be their word on what they could live with and still maintain their businesses, and the upper limit would be a best-case scenario they could fish under should the stock be at historically abundant levels.

Of course, we’re going to need to see a full Council-staff analysis on all of this to understand how this could possibly comply with federal law, which requires annual catch limits based on the most recent data, and accountability measures should harvest go over such limits.  Our guess is that any analysis is going to tell us what we already expect.  That it can’t. 

At any rate, the Council and Commission agreed to move forward with the recreational reform initiative at this meeting.  Some of which will be completed though a technical guidance document, and some of which will require a framework and/or addendum. 

And just to editorialize for a minute.  It’s indeed true that federal fishery management measures are often construed as overly cautious and overly constraining due to the fact that Councils have a legal mandate to prevent overfishing (through annual catch limits and accountability measures).  But if you compare that system to the one that ASMFC uses, where there are no such mandates, well it’s pretty easy to see how such mandates are necessary.  Striped bass is just one example of how political pressure to allow overfishing has had consequences. 

But let’s move on. 

Menhaden

Nothing terribly concerning here really.  Although it looks like state allocations will be reviewed and possibly revisited this year.  

As readers likely know, Virginia gets over 70% of the allocation because of the large-scale reduction fishery that exists in that state.  Meanwhile, not only has the stock seemed to shift north, it has undoubtedly become more abundant from New York to Maine.  Meanwhile, the Atlantic herring fishery, which has historically provided lobster bait to much of the fleet, has become more constrained as Atlantic herring has declined.  So, of course northern states want a larger share of the menhaden resource to supply their lobster fisheries. 

Without getting into politics, is it fair that a quota redistribution be addressed at the Commission?  Absolutely…  But, I am a little concerned about localized abundance in those northern states who would benefit from such a redistribution.  While it’s very unlikely we’d see the sort of large-scale reduction fisheries we see in VA with such quota increases, there’d likely be more boats targeting more schools.  I mean that’s fine.  The coastal quota is what it is, and a dead fish is a dead fish, no matter where it’s harvested.  But localized depletion can and does exist.  Just ask our friends in Maryland and Virginia.

This is a long way off, and certainly we have no position at this time.  And should the Board move forward, there will likely be a long amendment process, so we’re not going to worry too much about it right now.  But for sure, we’ll keep an eye on how all this develops. 

Shad and River Herring

We’re just going to touch on this briefly, as not many true saltwater guys are terribly concerned with shad.  But it’s relevant in the context of “bait” and ecosystem management in general. 

The Shad and River Herring Board was presented with the latest American shad stock assessment.  And guess what–shad are in pretty bad shape.  This is not really news.  With the exception of a handful of runs up north, they’ve been trending down for an awful long time.  That likely has to do with a multitude of reasons – dams, loss of spawning habitat, bycatch that occurs in the small mesh net fisheries at sea.  But there was some discussion that, ahem, the striped bass were eating them all.

While this is certainly NOT a contention based on science, it is still something we hear a lot.  One well respected Commissioner went on to say that we would have to consider the tradeoff that comes with rebuilding the striped bass population – that they would eat more shad (and river herring). 

We don’t doubt one bit that stripers eat river herring and shad.  In fact I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.  But to blame their virtual collapse on a species that it has coexisted with well before we got here to “control” striped bass populations is ridiculous.  Even more ridiculous is the theory that if we keep certain predator species depleted it will help other depleted species that such predator species might eat.  If you wanted to follow that reasoning, well, then let’s just keep everything depleted.  Yes, such statements are the kind of thing you expect to hear from folks wishing to harvest more striped bass, but it’s always concerning when you hear it from a State’s fishery guy. 

Moving on, yes there are other issues that likely warrant a mention, but we’ll leave it at that.

Stay tuned for more info on Amendment 7 to the Striped Bass Management Plan.  Like we said.  This is an important one.   


 

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