New Recreational Management Effort Raises More Questions than Answers

By Will Poston, Fisheries Policy Consultant

For longer than a year, we’ve been keeping an eye on the Recreational Reform Initiative (RRI), a comprehensive joint effort by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (Commission) to improve the management of four key recreational fisheries—black sea bass, fluke, scup, and bluefish. The process has been complex, evolving, and largely devoid of public input. However, now that concrete alternatives for the first piece of the RRI, the Recreational Harvest Control Rule (HCR) Framework/Addendum, are out in the public sphere, its time share our thoughts and concerns—and get you, the public, up to speed with what’s going on.

Quick Background on Recreational Reform

The RRI grew out of Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) growing pains, specifically with regard to black sea bass. After recalibrated MRIP estimates were approved for management use in 2017, our understanding of many stocks fundamentally changed. MRIP told us that because recreational effort, catch, and landings were substantially higher than previously understood, there must have been more fish in the ocean. This resulted in a phenomenon known as “chasing the recreational harvest limit (RHL),” where managers were constantly trying to constrain recreational catches.

Earlier this year, the Council and Commission prioritized the HCR as a possible alternative and solution to the current system of managing the recreational sector. An HCR can provide relief by relying on predetermined measures (bag size, season length, and size limit) for certain scenarios like stock status and trend. Additionally, HCRs can remove the political pressures surrounding recreational management measures—when implemented and developed effectively. Leading up to the joint Council/Commission meeting in August, Council and Commission staff met several times to develop various alternatives. Following these meetings, the slate of options on the table was comprehensive and addressed many—but not all—of ASGA’s initial concerns.

A picture containing graphical user interface

Description automatically generated

Throughout this whole process, our primary concern was that the HCR appeared to offer a way for recreational fisheries to sidestep the Magnuson-Stevens Act requirement of Annual Catch Limits (ACL)—bringing back unpleasant memories from the Modern Fish Act debate on Capitol Hill in 2017-2018. If you’re wondering why that’s a concern, consider that the same groups who initially proposed the HCR were also behind the Modern Fish Act. For months, staff members grappled with developing HCR alternatives without fully sorting out how this system will adhere to ACLs. We view this as a major issue for two reasons. One, ACLs work; they have been an integral reason for the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s success in rebuilding overfished stocks. Second, catch limits are a legal requirement; operating without them or ignoring them can open NOAA Fisheries to legal liability. Details regarding how managers plan to integrate ACLs—and accountability measures—into an HCR system remains to be seen.

Another glaring issue with the HCR discussions thus far concerns the public’s lack of awareness or involvement and the rushed effort to implement a brand-new management strategy as soon as next year. Follow along for a deeper dive into the HCR alternatives, how the most recent management discussions went, and what’s next.

HCR Alternatives

Council and Commission staff outlined five HCR alternatives at the August meeting:

  1. No Action—i.e., the current process for setting recreational management measures.
  2. Percent Change Alternative—liberalizes or tightens recreational measures (bag, size, and season length) by various percentages based on a comparison of the future RHL, MRIP estimates, and biomass.
  3. Fishery Score Alternative—generates a “fishery score” based on multiple metrics (fishing mortality, biomass, recruitment, and fishery performance), which managers will then approve the predetermined management measures for that score.
  4. Biological Reference Point Alternative—uses biomass and fishing mortality to categorize a fishery into one of seven “boxes” and then additional metrics to liberalize, tighten, or keep the same management measures.
  5. Biomass Based Matrix Alternative—sets management measures based on biomass and the most recent trend in biomass (increasing, stable, or decreasing).

Highlights from the August Meeting

We learned a lot at the August meeting—much more than we originally expected by how the summer’s previous planning meetings went. Throughout the several meetings the Council’s FMAT and Commission’s PDT discussed several approaches for the HCR, but substantive progress was less understood.

There were many interesting questions and comments made by Commissioners and Council Members that deserve a spotlight. One thing that we’ve been concerned about is how the HCR would or would not affect rebuilding progress for the overfished bluefish stock. Well, Peter DeFur from the Council started the discussion off by asking how each alternative would treat bluefish, which is undergoing a rebuilding plan. Staff responded that they are still working to address the issue of rebuilding timelines within the HCR alternatives. The Biological Reference Point Alternative, for example, removes stocks undergoing a rebuilding plan from the HCR system. The other alternatives, meanwhile, rely on varying levels of conservative measures to bring the stock back to a healthy state—and hopefully maintain it there. However, rebuilding plans within the HCR require more consideration by staff, and we’ll be watching closely to see how their thinking evolves.

The next discussion worth highlighting was regarding whether these HCR alternatives are even framework-able or addendum-able. For context, frameworks and addendums are changes to management that can be developed and implemented quicker than a full amendment, which takes around two and a half years. In addition, frameworks and addendums require less public involvement than the amendment process, which for something like the HCR seems pretty important given its departure from recreational management as we know it.

During the meeting, NOAA staff rationalized that these HCR alternatives are framework-able because they rely on readily available information. However, we contend that this is such a dramatic shift in management that jamming the HCR through as a framework with limited public input is not in the best interests of the public or the resource.

Not to mention, this seems to be a departure from the Council’s own understanding:

“It is important to emphasize that a framework may not always be appropriate even if the type of change falls within a category listed in the framework regulations. If the specific proposed action represents a significant departure from previously contemplated measures or otherwise introduces new concepts, an amendment may be more appropriate than a framework.”

Whichever alternative (except status quo) that’s approved will be a fundamental shift in management; the entire goal of the RRI is to change how the recreational fishery is managed. Moving forward through a framework or addendum—with very little public comment and input until the final stages of the process—is pretty disappointing in our eyes.

Finally, we’d like to share one recommendation that did not get as much traction at the meeting as we would’ve liked. Black sea bass is a very healthy stock—their biomass is 210 percent of the target—and it was problems with managing the black sea bass stock that the HCR was formulated to address. So, our thought is why not test one of these HCRs on black sea bass in a pilot fashion? The implementation risk is far less with black sea bass than it is with fluke (summer flounder) and definitely than with overfished bluefish. Sure makes a lot of sense to us.

Next Steps

The Council and Commission were generally in agreement that the HCR is not ready for implementation in 2022—and 2023 is much more likely—but they are still moving forward with these alternatives. Motions to move the draft alternatives for further development in a framework/addendum passed both bodies unanimously. Moving forward, the Council and Commission are planning to conduct a series of stakeholder workgroups this fall and public hearings in November and December. We will be sure to provide updates on this information and opportunities to provide comment. In the meantime, we know how confusing and complex this particular issue is, so drop us a line if you have a question, comment, or concern.

3 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Recent Articles:

Browse by Category:

Search all Categories

Stand with Us

We rely on our members and donations to keep fighting for a sustainable tomorrow in marine conservation.

By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively. To learn more, please review our privacy policy.