Conservation advocates won the fight…now what?

By Capt. John McMurray, President

Last week the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) met to finalize Amendment 7 to the Striped Bass Management Plan. In the spirit of optimism, it’s hard not to acknowledge a surprisingly good outcome. I mean, without a doubt, overwhelming public comment—literally 99% of it—was focused on precaution and expedient action to address problems, even potential problems, with the stock. And without a doubt, that moved the great majority of Commissioners in the right direction. Despite its critics, it was a clear affirmation that the public process does indeed work…sometimes, anyway. There seemed to be a clear consensus in favor of conservation and rebuilding and addressing issues with the stock quickly. And that’s something I hadn’t yet seen around that table.  

But listen…optimism isn’t my strong suit. And while the glass certainly isn’t half empty here, it ain’t full either. There are some real problems we’re going to need to address in the near future. And I hope they aren’t as bad as I think they’ll be, but like I said, optimism isn’t really my thing.  

Before getting into all that here, it’s probably important to point out how important an “Amendment” is. The last Amendment (Amendment 6) was finalized in 2003 and implemented in 2004. Of course, there will be “Addenda” to Amendment 7 (actually, the Board will probably initiate the first one in October), but it’s entirely possible, in fact likely, that Amendment 7 will guide us through how we manage striped bass for the next two decades. So, yeah, this was kind of important. But I’m sure you know that if you’ve been following things.

I guess it’s also important to understand how we got here, although we’ve written about this so much, it’s probably gratuitous to go over it again. But it’s hard to get to the issues here without the right context.

How We Got Here (The Abridged Version)

So…several years ago, during the Addendum VI discussions—note that Addendum VI was intended to be a response to a stock assessment that revealed that the striped bass stock was overfished (below the spawning stock biomass threshold) and that overfishing was occurring—there were a few folks around the table who argued that maybe the biomass target and fishing mortality threshold were unreasonable. Because…well, maybe the Chesapeake Bay, the biggest producer area on the East Coast, wasn’t as productive as it was when scientists set the biomass target, which was an empirical (note: not biological) reference point based on 125% of 1995 levels.

While the perception, and likely the clear intent of revisiting those reference points, was to move the goal posts, those arguments weren’t entirely unjustified. There’s been a clear decline in recruitment in the Chesapeake Bay, which is by far the largest contributor to the coastal stock. Of course, controlling fishing mortality is important, but if you don’t have good numbers of new fish entering the population, well, then it becomes much harder to get the stock back up to a target level that was (almost but not quite) achieved in the early 2000s, which was a result of not simply addressing overfishing, but a decade of good recruitment in the Chesapeake.   

Now, let’s touch on another important caveat here, that really hasn’t been getting much air time on the interwebs. Note that I said “almost but not quite above” the target.  It turns out that due to a recalibration of recreational catch data (this is a long story that I’m not going to dive into here) we’ve never actually achieved the spawning stock biomass target. And I want to emphasize that this was during a period of GOOD recruitment.

I’m going to get back to this. But for now, let’s just be clear that the entire genesis of Amendment 7 was so those folks could maybe convince the Board to adjust the reference points (i.e. move the goal posts) and really take an entirely new look at how we manage striped bass, with a focus back on harvest instead of coastal abundance. Clearly, those folks’ intent was liberalizing regulations during a time when striped bass stocks were on the decline, and that simply wasn’t acceptable to the striped bass fishing public. When the Amendment 7 Public Information Document went out early last year, the public wasn’t having it. There was a ground swell of support for NOT moving the goal posts. And pretty much everything in that document that would seriously weaken Amendment 6’s conservation provisions was ousted at the next meeting.

Where we ended up after a few meetings was that the Board would take another look at the management triggers which require the Board to take action, because there was some question about whether or not what we had on the books was too precautionary and required too many management actions that create “management instability.” (Which was kind of ridiculous given that we’ve only tripped triggers/taken action twice in the last 20 years—once when overfishing was occurring, and again when the stock became overfished). There was also a section on deferring management action under certain circumstances; a section on addressing recreational release mortality; how to go about a rebuilding plan; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, a section that could address the abuse of the conservation equivalency program.

Management Triggers

Rather than go into detail on the triggers, I can summarize it all by saying that the Board decided not to weaken/allow delay on any of them. It was a fairly quick conversation followed by several near-unanimous votes. In addition, the last trigger, which would compel the Board to act if there is poor recruitment, was strengthened. The option picked was nuanced, and not necessarily the most conservative option, but it was still better than what we had before. The bottom line is that the current, arguably conservative triggers will stay intact, and indeed, that is good news.

Deferred Management Action

The deferred management action section was a little bit more nuanced, and probably not the best outcome we could have hoped for. Initially, there seemed to be a fair amount of support for the status quo, which doesn’t allow deferred management action. After some debate and a substitute motion, the Board, in a very close vote, approved Option F, which does give the Board the flexibility to delay management action (until the next assessment) if a trigger trips after the Board has already initiated action in response to a different management trigger tripping.

The rationale was that if, say, the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded, and the Board has initiated an addendum to reduce fishing mortality to get it back to target, and then the recruitment trigger trips, how would the Board address both and would it even be necessary to address both if reducing fishing might take care of both?

Really, given the history of the Striped Bass Board, and the public’s very clear disdain for delay, the point was made that any sort of opportunity for delay was a bad idea. But in the end, practicality won the day.

Not the best outcome, but not terrible either. And there were very real arguments for allowing the Board a little bit of flexibility here. I don’t suspect this will bite us in the arse, but it’s entirely possible that the Board could allow a problem to get worse, until it becomes far more difficult to resolve, merely because it’s already working on something else. But I guess we’ll see.

Recreational Release Mortality

At a high level, the most important outcome of the recreational release mortality discussion is that we managed to get rid of the proposed no-targeting closures. Actually, closures in general were taken off the table…for now.

Just to be clear, the recreational discard mortality rate is estimated to 9% coastwide. Meaning about one out of every 10 fish dies after/during release. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and of course it’s WAY better than the 100% mortality rate of those fish thrown in the cooler, but when you extrapolate it across the entirety of recreational fishing effort, it adds up to over 50% of the total fishing mortality.

I’m not going to get into how that sort of discard mortality will, of course, always be part of any fishery that is 90% recreational and 90% catch and release (NOAA Fisheries’ numbers not mine), but clearly the Board wanted to address it.

The problem is that you really can’t address it. Any no-target closure is more or less unenforceable. And while there were some comments that compliance is generally estimated be close to 80% with most regulations, I find it hard to believe that compliance in this case would be anything close to that. You can’t tell people they can’t fish at all and expect them to comply. And while it may be speculation, I find it hard to believe that as long as there are bluefish, or anything else in the water for that matter, anglers will “target” them and “incidentally” catch striped bass.

Plus, the science folks can’t even quantify the impact a closure would have. I mean, yeah, intuitively, reducing fishing effort should lead to lower fishing mortality but because of the compliance issue, among others, how much lower, well, we can’t even get an estimate.

Regardless, no-target closures are an outdated way of looking at a fishery. The vast majority of economic benefit comes simply from the opportunity to go fishing and not really whether or not anglers can kill a striper. I don’t know how it’s even possible to justify taking that opportunity away from people, without a clear idea of what (if any) conservation benefit we’d getting from it. But, let’s not go down that rabbit hole.

Really, the larger question was whether or not any type of closure “policy” belongs in an Amendment that could possibly be in place for the next 20 years. Because effort creates the greatest social and economic benefits, closures should probably be a last resort to address an immediate problem, not a policy. Yes, there seemed to still be support for closures as a temporary measure. Given the discussion, it seems likely that such closures will be given their due attention in the forthcoming rebuilding plan. But…the consensus was that they didn’t belong in an amendment. And so they were removed.

All that said, I’m almost certain we’ll need to revisit closures, specifically no-target closures, once we initiate a rebuilding plan addendum in October. Of course, that depends on IF we need to do anything to rebuild. It is indeed possible—though I have to admit, unlikely—that a reduction in effort and the current slot limit (which does indeed seem to be protecting an awful lot of large females) has put us on the right track. But there’s not much we can do about poor recruitment, so I’d have to say it’s not likely.

Rebuilding Plan

No real surprises here. In a single motion, the Board voted to rebuild by 2029 using the more conservative “low recruitment scenario” (averaging the recent years of low recruitment instead of also including the older years of high recruitment), while giving the Board the flexibility to act quickly IF the October assessment shows that we couldn’t rebuild by 2029 under current measures. Usually, we’d have to proceed with a full addendum to implement measures that would get us to spawning stock biomass target by 2029, and it’d likely be two seasons before those measures would be put in place.  This motion gives the Board the wherewithal to act much more quickly and implement measures for the 2023 season.

The Board also voted to give managers a two-year deadline to implement a rebuilding plan after the stock is declared overfished. This was important because there’s currently no deadline, and even though the stock was found to be overfished in 2019 (based on an assessment using data through 2017), the Board still hasn’t initiated a rebuilding plan.

Conservation Equivalency

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the board addressed Conservation Equivalency (CE).

If you don’t already know, the “equivalency” program allows states to avoid coastal measures and implement their own regulations as long as they achieve the same level of conservation as the coastal measures would achieve in that particular state.

While that sounds fine, it has become very clear over the last several years how some states have used imprecise data to develop liberalized measures that might seem to work on paper, but clearly don’t work in practice, at the expense of every other state who went with the coastal measures. And then, when that becomes apparent, there is no accountability.

Draft Amendment 7 included some very good front-end measures that would ensure conservation equivalency doesn’t go off the rails again.

What was approved was an option that doesn’t allow the use of conservation equivalency if the stock is overfished. And that makes perfect sense, because when survey data is looked at by state, well, the level of uncertainly generally gets higher, and way more risk is assumed. It makes sense to avoid that risk with a stock that clearly isn’t doing well.

There were also options about the level of accuracy of the data used in CE proposals. What the Board ultimately chose was a 40% “percent standard error” (PSE) cutoff. In other words, if the data used had a PSE that was 40% or higher, they couldn’t use it. We would have liked to see the more conservative 30% PSE as the cutoff. That being said, if there’s more data uncertainty allowed in a CE proposal, there should be a buffer requirement to ensure there is actually a good chance of its succeeding. With that in mind that 40% PSE requirement was coupled with a requirement that, if the PSE rose above 30%, the uncertainly buffer would be 25%, while data with a PSE of or below 30% would only be subject to a 10% uncertainty buffer. Clear as mud right? Yes, this stuff is NOT easy to follow, but it does make sense. And yes, this was a good outcome, particularly considering that there wasn’t ANY real CE proposal requirement for data precision and no uncertainly buffers before all of this.

Moving on, the Board also approved Option E2, which was a really important one, although not all that easy to explain.  

When the ASMFC adopts a single coastal measure intended to reduce fishing mortality along the coast by a specified amount, such a measure affects every state differently, because every state’s fishery has its own, unique features. Thus, each state would assume a different level of the conservation burden. Some states’ fisheries are heavily impacted by the coastwide measures, and experience significant harvest reductions, while other states fisheries are only mildly affected. But essentially, if your state has a large impact on the fishery, well then the state would be subject to a larger share of the conservation burden, which makes sense.

But E1 would have allowed a state to simply assume the coastal average when creating CE measures. It’s easy to see how that worked in practice. During the finalization of Addendum VI, the goal of which was to implement a 18% reduction across the coast, the state of New Jersey chose to use conservation equivalency, successfully arguing that they could take the 18% coastwide reduction, instead of the 42% reduction they would have taken under the coastal measures.

Clearly, that doesn’t comply with the Interstate Fishery Management Program Charter’s requirement for CE programs, that such programs “achieve the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management.” E1 could and has undercut the goals of management measures. I mean, we saw it happen with Addendum VI. That sort of CE flexibility gave us a 42% chance of the measures’ achieving the 18% reduction coastwide instead of the 50% that’s the generally accepted requirement.

Option E2 simply requires the state choosing conservation equivalent measures to implement regulations that would result in their full share of the conservation burden under the coastal measure. And thankfully, that is the option the Board approved.

Conclusions and Where We Are Now

In short, these were all more-or-less very good outcomes. Better than any of us expected really.

But where does it all leave us?

Well, we’re going to get a stock assessment update in October. How the Board moves forward hinges on what the assessment tell us, which currently is anyone’s guess. I mean, assumptions can be made about the reduction in effort and the effects of the slot limit. Like I said, effort appears to be down, and just about anyone can see how the slot limit is working to keep a lot of larger/older female fish from going in coolers. But… There’s not a damn thing we can do about recruitment. How all this plays out in assessment update, well, I really don’t know.

Commissioner John Clark from Delaware brought up and frequently harped on what is undoubtedly a real concern. We’re being asked to manage to a spawning stock biomass target that we’ve never actually reached even with really good recruitment. And now we’re being asked to reach it with sub-standard recruitment? Mr. Clark questioned whether or not that is even possible. I would argue that we don’t really know for sure because we’ve never had fishing mortality at a sustained level that would supposedly get us there. And, I would point out here that the science says it is indeed possible. And lastly that the public is demanding that the Board at least try.

But we all better full-well understand that it may require some really significant sacrifices from anglers and, ahem, guides. And for those of you constantly ringing the moratorium bell? Well, you’d better be careful what you wish for. Because if recreational discard mortality is accounting for over 50% of total mortality, and recruitment continues to be poor, you can be sure a no-target moratorium will be on the table. Because at some point it’s going to be difficult to impossible to reduce harvest any more than we have. And guess what…that means you’re not fishing, or at least you’re not supposed to be.

What’s really unfortunate about that is there will likely be very little if any compliance. Because it’s hard to believe that people aren’t going to fish, no matter what. And, well, they’ll all just be “targeting” something else. What sucks is that the only people it will really impact are the light-tackle guides, ahem, like me, and, well, the folks that ASGA has been busting it’s arse to represent from day one. Because they can no longer market catch-and-release striper trips. Which is the simply what we do. And you can be damn sure I won’t be able to get away with fishing in Jamaica Bay in April when there are no bluefish around, nor would I even try. What’s ironic about all of this is that the light-tackle guide constituency is one of, if not THE, most conservation-minded stakeholder.

But hey man. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, let’s just be happy that the Striped Bass Board went the right direction with Amendment 7, the effects of which we’ll live with for a long time.   

There are lots of people to thank for that. But if I had to restrict it, I’d thank the public…for being passionate and turning out lots of support for conservation measures. Anyone who says that public engagement doesn’t matter is clearly wrong. At least in the case.

I hope this is an indication of things to come—A paradigm shift in the way the Commission does business. But every situation is different. And the writing was on the wall here.

Stay tuned and we’ll let you know how it all develops. Particularly this fall when the stock assessment update becomes public.

5 Responses

  1. The public must be educated in regards to mortality. Perhaps explain that now is critical time to limit catch rates. ( unenforceable) When is enough, enough? Will they be happy with only ten released bass? Most likely no but some will consider it. I did ten years ago and many of my fishing buddies are now doing the same. No more 25-50 fish days when they are easy targets.

    Is the Commission prepared to act swiftly with a plan if the trigger gets pulled in October? Two seasons? Not acceptable! More can kicking before anything gets done! Build a plan now PLEASE!

  2. It is essential that “education” and enforcement be ramped up wherever, and whenever it can. Hard to monitor boats spread far and wide, but they tend to congregate in significant numbers in certain areas. And the Canal is notorious for bad C&R practices. Go any day and watch what people do. They may as well keep the things but they think they are doing right by dragging them up to rocks and roads and parking lots, holding them up with there grippers or by the hooked jaw, and taking lots of pictures, then throwing them back in…. sadly, to die soon. So spend the money to put up bill boards, hold seminars, impose large fines, and monitor the concentration areas. The spot fishing is going to slip by, but often those are less take areas and maybe the release is better handled.
    As for keep, if hunting can somewhat enforce a limit based on the entire season, why can’t fishing? It may be only some percentage of success, but it doesn’t hurt. Of course there are those who take what they want, not just what they are allowed. But it all helps.
    A few years ago, the keep went from 2 per day to 1. And the slot size has been reduced. Has that not changed some percentage of anglers keep numbers? If that is only a small percent enforceable, at least it is a help. And essentially free. There are a lot of people fishing who try to abide by the “rules”. And kids coming up, who are seeing the effort to enjoy fishing while maintaining the fishery, will be more inclined to do so, and raise their kids to do so. What is wrong with that?
    Most people obey speed limits and motor vehicle rules to a great degree, even without a cop on every corner and radar covering the entire highway. If you don’t post the speed limit, and don’t put solid lines, and lights, you have the wild west. This is no different in concept and practice.
    The goal is to improve the stock. Do all the easy stuff. And keep working on the more complex stuff. Maybe we won’t get there. But it increases the odds.

  3. With all due respect to commercial, if you don’t step up too, its all going to go away. If high volume take is contributing to the decline. Then maybe its time to look at other options. Most people have had to do that with there work. Career changes are part of work life. It can suck to not be able to do what you want to do, what you are familiar with. I know that well. But the behavior of past and present tells us it is time for change. Why do you think you shouldn’t have to? When was the last time you could “walk on the backs” of a school of cod? And why is that not possible today? The balance of supply and demand goes beyond dollars and cents when nature is involved. The world of nature can only provide so much. That is why humans became farmers, instead of just hunters and foragers. Sorry, but it may be time to look at farming. And I mean sustainable, low impact farming… and I don’t even like farmed fish as much as fresh wild caught. But that’s where we are, and where we will have to go. Get ahead of the curve instead of chasing the bleeding tail. Killing the goose doesn’t keep eggs in the basket.
    Also, its time for a new economic model. Not based on growth, but based on balance. We (world wide) are increasing demand rapidly due to population growth (200 people every minute and increasing exponentially). And that population is demanding more stuff, and industry is producing more stuff to sell to that increasing population. The “balance” model would compete to provide the primary needs (food, water, shelter, and medical, education, transportation and now, internet I suppose), and not by design, require reduction in natural resources. It sounds like some form of communism and all that political bullshit. That not the point. The reality is, we are beyond our capacity and only keeping up by decimating natural resources (now especially the immense ocean, previously considered beyond our ability to damage), including food, without technological intervention that is reducing the quality of our food and other needs. There are plenty of people, even if we had zero growth now, to sustain industry. But it would be a different industry. Business is business. It needs to adapt as well instead of just doing the same old crap of doing whatever it wants and marketing to consumers as if they “need” to have everything that can be fit on their phone screen. Sorry, just frustrated with the “horse and buggy” vs “automobile” model, from a time when we believed the earth, and ocean, were limitless, when the problem is resources that are, in fact limited, yet we are concerned with increasing the demand and meeting that demand with low regard for the limits of the resource.

    We all know the striper (and cod, and halibut, and salmon, and tuna, and swordfish and other species) population is way down. Period. What we do to fix it, how soon we do it, and how we avoid that in the future are what count. We have the knowledge to focus on quality, but we make our history based on quantity.

    I’m sure I will get eggs thrown for saying that. At least eggs are an easily renewable resource! 🙂

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