Update on STRIPED BASS regulations or lack of

I tried to sit through the meeting on the WEB but it was too frustrating BUT here is a recap from a Capt who sat through it
I suspect nothing will change until it is too late just like what happen back in 80’s which led to a moratorium
Bill (bucktail willie) Shillingford

Thursday, February 7, 2019

I honestly don’t know what I was expecting when I listened in on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board meeting earlier this week.

There were so many directions the meeting could have taken. A preliminary report on the new benchmark stock assessment presented a convincing case that the bass are in trouble, both seriously overfished and subject to significant overfishing. On the other hand, there has also been a strong undercurrent, among a number of Management Board members, to amend the management plan to increase the kill and, coincidentally, increase the risk to the spawning stock. Proposals to open federal waters to harvest loomed in the background, while new estimates of recreational effort and landings clearly affected the assessment’s conclusions, and might well have drawn aggressive challenges.

Yet, if I wasn’t quite sure what direction the meeting would take, I did expect it to be a fairly contentious session, with various factions staking out their positions and digging in for a fight. It was virtually certain that no final decisions would emerge, but it seemed likely that a majority would decide to move forward, for good or ill, in one direction or another.

But that didn’t happen. Some commissioners did make their positions clear, but the meeting was surprisingly low-key.

While the distressed state of the striped bass stock, as described in the preliminary report, was the proverbial dead elephant in the living room, the commissioners generally avoided that issue, and instead danced around its bulky corpse, poking and prodding it, yes, but never directly addressing the question of how to make it go away.

The meeting opened with a presentation of the preliminary report which, in itself, was instructive.

The preliminary stock assessment report revealed that, in 2017, recreational fishermen were responsible for 90% of all fishing mortality; of that, most was not comprised of landings, but of recreational discards (42% of all fishing mortality was recreational landings, 48% was recreational discards). So the recreational sector will probably be the focus of any rebuilding measures.

In addition, when the benchmark assessment was first authorized, the Stock Assessment Subcommittee was tasked with providing projections not only on the current reference points, based on the female spawning stock biomass in 1995, but also on possible alternative reference points that would allow higher levels of fishing mortality—and so a smaller biomass and less stable spawning stock. However, the Stock Assessment Subcommittee could not come up with valid model-based biological reference points, and so only offered one alternative, which was the female spawning stock biomass in 1993, a time when the stock was not yet recovered, but produced a good year class nonetheless.

At current levels of harvest, whether measured in pounds or in fishing mortality rate, it is very unlikely that the spawning stock biomass could reach the 1995 threshold by 2023, and even the chance of reaching 1993 biomass levels by then would be problematic. The stock really has fallen that far.

Once the stock assessment presentation was done, Management Board Chairman Michael Armstrong, a fisheries administrator from Massachusetts, opened the general discussion. He noted that, while the final benchmark assessment wasn’t yet available, its conclusions weren’t likely to differ from those in the preliminary report. He then advised the Management Board that it was up to them how far they wanted to go at the meeting, while observing that

“It’s clear we need to do something.”
But in the end, it was also clear that no one was yet prepared to do too much.

That was the case even though, if you took ASMFC, and the Management Board, at their word, and expected them to follow the dictates of their own management plan, the path seemed perfectly clear.

Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass says

“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded in any year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below target within one year,”

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2.”
Section 2.6.2 of the Amendment says

“If at anytime the Atlantic striped bass population is declared overfished and rebuilding needs to occur, the Management Board will determine the rebuilding schedule at that time. The only limitation imposed under Amendment 6 is that the rebuilding schedule is not to exceed 10 years. [emphasis added]”
That seems pretty cut and dried, and you might have thought, given such language, that the rest of the Management Board meeting would have been all about getting those mandated things done. And if striped bass were a federally-managed species, subject to theMagnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, there’s a likelihood that would have happened.

Federal fishery managers must base their decisions on the best available science. They’re legally required to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks. And, to the occasional horror of various user groups, they must adhere to the terms of their own fishery management plans, even if that means adopting unpopular measures.

If they don’t, they can be sued.

But ASMFC doesn’t work that way. It has no enforceable legal obligation to end overfishing, use the best science, or to rebuild overfished stocks, and it can blatantly ignore the terms of its management plans whenever it chooses to do so, because its decisions aren’t even subject to judicial review under the federal Administrative Procedures Act. Which probably explains why it has such a dismal record when it comes to rebuilding and conserving the fish stocks under its care.

So it’s probably not surprising that nothing particularly substantive came out of the Management Board’s most recent meeting.

Even so, some things were made clear, probably foremost among them the fact that the State of Maryland is going to do all it can to prevent the stock from rebuilding to the current spawning stock biomass target.

That became obvious when Michael Luisi, Maryland’s marine fisheries administrator, was the first voice to question Michael Colestino, who presented the stock assessment report. Luisi wanted to know if there was any one data source that resulted in the assessment’s conclusions; it was clear that he hoped that the assessment’s findings that the stock was both overfished and subject to overfishing, largely arose from the new recreational landings estimates, which he could then attempt to impeach. He seemed disappointed to learn that the assessment’s findings were broadly supported by multiple lines of information.

As the meeting went on, he asked additional questions, all seeking to blunt the impact of the assessment’s conclusions. In the end, Luisi ended up expressing the hope that the Management Board would consider drafting a “new, comprehensive” document—which would mean a full amendment, and not an addendum—that would place less emphasis on retaining the larger, older females in the spawning stock, and place greater emphasis on raising the annual kill. Although, when he said that the current management document, Amendment 6, was written

“when more striped bass were in the ocean,”
he unwittingly undercut his position, as its hard to credibly argue that regulations ought to be relaxed when there arefewer fish around…

Still, Luisi wasn’t alone. John Clark, his counterpart in the State of Delaware, also pushed for a new, less restrictive amendment. But it was notable that a number of Management Board members who have previously sought higher harvests were uncharacteristically quiet at the recent meeting, and ended up saying little or nothing at all. It’s not impossible that the reality of past management errors, and the real implications of the stock assessment, are beginning to get them concerned.

It’s also very possible that all of the Management Board members were a little stunned by the reality of what they are going to have to do to dig out of this hole that they’ve dug for themselves by not taking action sooner, when the stock was still in half-decent shape.

The could have done so in 2011, when they abandoned a proposed amendment that would have imposed a 40% landings reduction (in hindsight, probably just about the right amount, given the latest assessment’s conclusions), even in the face of a stockassessment update that, prophetically, informed them that striped bass would beoverfished by 2017.

And they could have done so in 2014, when another management trigger was tripped—biomass below target for two consecutive years, and overfishing occurring in one—but that trigger was also ignored; if they had acted, they would have had a five-year head start on rebuilding the stock, and would not have found themselves where they are now.

But they stood pat, because there had been no crisis yet, and now that the crisis is here, they seem shocked into a sort of immobility. Because yes, the steps that they’ll have to take now, if they’re to live up to the commitments they made in Amendment 6, will have to be much more restrictive than they would have been if put in place, to conserve a larger stock, five or eight years ago.

So it’s not surprising that their first, collective reaction at this week’s meeting was to take things slowly and defer any meaningful action until their May meeting, even though the technical folks made it quite clear that, assessment-wise, nothing is likely to change.

Even so, there was some slight motion forward.

Doug Grout, a marine fisheries administrator from New Hampshire who has always been at the forefront of striped bass conservation efforts, broke the ice with a motion that read

“Move to task the Technical Committee with providing the Board with a report that shows the reductions in harvest needed to reduce F to Fthreshold and Ftarget (0.197). Also provide one example of recreational bag and size limit combination (if necessary seasonal restrictions) needed to achieve those conditions a) on the coast and b) in the Chesapeake Bay and report back to the Board in May.”
It was a start, if a small one, to begin addressing the overfishing issue, although the restrictions needed to do that are likely less than those that will be required to rebuild the overfished stock. Even so, it drew a few objections, although the motion ultimately passed by a margin of 15 to 1.

The issue of whether to recommend that the National Marine Fisheries Service allow striped bass fishing in federal waters north and west of Block Island, carried over from last October’s meeting, was also largely deferred until May.

In October, the Management Board deferred action until they could review the results of the benchmark stock assessment. Now that the results of the assessment are known, and the news is not good, Pat Keliher, Maine’s marine fisheries administrator, moved to have ASMFC staff prepare a letter opposing opening the area, known as the Block Island Transit Zone, which the Management Board could review in May.

That motion also found 15 in favor; one state delegation was completely split, and cast a null vote.

Of course, by May, NMFS may already have made its decision, and rendered the whole question moot.

Still, once again, the Management Board moved in the right direction, even if their motion was exceedingly slow.

So, right now, it looks as if May is crunch time, and maybe that’s good.

It will still leave enough time to get new regulations in place for the 2020 season, if that’s what the Management Board decides to do.

And it will give the Management Board members a chance to think about the implications of not getting the striped bass recovery right. It will give them a chance to think of what they did wrong before. And it will give them a chance to hear from constituents, about why rebuilding the stock is the right thing to do.

Don’t waste the opportunity to let them know how important that rebuilding is to you.