Striped Bass is a Poor Model for Recreational Fishery Management

Striped Bass

Ever since the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) successfully rebuilt the collapsed Atlantic striped bass population in 1995, some segments of the recreational fishing community have used striped bass as an example of how recreational fisheries ought to be managed.

Praise for ASMFC’s approach to striped bass management reached a crescendo in the run-up to passage of the so-called “Modern Fish Act” by both houses of Congress, in the waning days of 2018. Such heightened praise first appeared in a policy paper, “A Vision for Managing America’s Salt Water Recreational Fisheries,” (Vision Report) which was issued in 2014.

The Vision Report argued that “The [National Marine Fisheries Service] should manage recreational fisheries based on long-term harvest rates, not strictly on poundage-based quotas. This strategy has been successfully used by fisheries managers in the Atlantic striped bass fishery, which is the most sought-after recreational fishery in the nation. By managing the recreational sector based on harvest rate as opposed to a poundage-based quota, managers have been able to provide predictability in regulations while also sustaining a healthy population.”

A follow-up report, “Approaches for Improved Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management” (Approaches Report), which was issued in 2016, featured striped bass as a “case study” of how fisheries could be managed without imposing poundage-based catch limits on recreational fishermen.

It said that “The ASMFC…allowed the recreational fishery to respond to abundance by setting an allowable harvest rate. The recreational fishery went from catching 5700 metric tons (mt) when the stock was declared recovered in 1995, to a high of 14,000 mt in 2006, a nearly 300% increase in harvest in 12 years. Yet the target fishing mortality rate was never exceeded according to the stock assessments done at that time.”

The Approaches Report went on to say that “This important stock has recovered and largely done well for over 15 years, with recreational catch rising and falling with abundance, never exceeding the harvest rate target level and producing relatively stable fishing seasons.”

It sounds like a dream scenario for fishing-related businesses, and for fishery managers. Striped bass could, according to the reports, be successfully managed without the need for hard-poundage catch limits, without the need to adjust regulations when abundance waned, and without the need to hold anglers accountable for overfishing the striped bass stock.

And, unfortunately, it all was a dream. Such claims of success distorted reality. In the end, they just were not true.

But truth hit the striped bass fishing public squarely between the eyes at the February meeting of ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board), where a preliminary report on the 2018 benchmark striped bass stock assessment revealed that “Female [spawning stock biomass] for Atlantic striped bass in 2017 was 68,476 [metric tons], below the [spawning stock biomass] threshold [of 91,436 metric tons], indicated that the stock is overfished. [Fishing mortality] in 2017 was 0.307, above the [fishing mortality] threshold [of 0.240], indicating that the stock is experiencing overfishing. [emphasis added]”

Furthermore, the preliminary report noted that, unless harvest was reduced, “the probability of female [spawning stock biomass] being below the [spawning stock biomass] threshold in 2023 was very high, equal or close to 100%…”

So the pretty picture painted by the Vision and Approaches Reports didn’t at all reflect what’s really happening out on the water. There’s a reason why the Approaches Report doesn’t mention anything that occurred after 2006.

Because from then until now, it’s all been bad news. And the way that ASMFC has chosen to manage the recreational striped bass fishery deserves much of the blame.

There is no question that ASMFC’s success in rebuilding the striped bass stocks was one of the hallmark achievements of fishery managers on the East Coast. And for a few years after the stock was rebuilt, the fish became even more abundant, and the recreational fishery thrived.

But when striped bass abundance began to decline, managers were far too slow to take action.

Their first warning sign was seven consecutive years of lackluster spawning success, which resulted in relatively few young striped bass entering the population. From 2004 through 2010, the Maryland juvenile striped bass survey, arguably the best predictor of future striped bass abundance, showed that annual spawning success ranged from poor to slightly above average; in more than half of those years, the young-of-the-year index returned the same sort of low values that were seen in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the stock had collapsed.

Fishermen, particularly those in northern New England, at the edge of the striped bass’ summer range, complained that bass were becoming harder and harder to find, but the Management Board did not respond to such declining abundance, and at one point nearly passed a motion to increase commercial landings “notwithstanding concerns over recent declines in [spawning stock biomass] and in Maryland [juvenile abundance index] values.”

In 2011, an update to the stock assessment warned that, if then-current conditions persisted, the striped bass stock would become overfished by 2017. That warning finally spurred the Management Board to initiate work on a new addendum to the fishery management plan that would have reduced landings. But at its October 2011 meeting, the Management Board decided to postpone any further action on such addendum because, while the stock was declining, it had not become overfished yet, and overfishing had not yet occurred.

The notion of trying to act before the stock became overfished seemed foreign to most Management Board members.

Tom Fote, the Governor’s Appointee from New Jersey, summed up the prevailing sentiment when he said “[Taking action to reduce landings before the stock became overfished] would be like me coming in and saying on summer flounder or any other species, well, we think we’re anticipating that the stock is going to crash in two years and now we’re going to jump—I don’t think that’s the right message to send to the public.”

In hindsight, Fote’s comments were somewhat ironic.

Just a few years after he made them, summer flounder faced the same problem as striped bass, and experienced six consecutive years of below-average spawning success. But, unlike the Management Board, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council), which manages the summer flounder stock, did not sit on its hands.

After biologists warned that “the biological reference points have continued to decline, stock projections have been consistently over-optimistic, and the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished,” the Council, unlike ASMFC, took immediate action to reduce landings and, it hoped, prevent the stock from becoming overfished.

A benchmark stock assessment for summer flounder was prepared concurrently with the striped bass assessment. A preliminary report on that summer flounder assessment found that the stock was neither overfished nor subject to overfishing. Landings can be safely increased in 2019.

The benchmark flounder assessment found that the stock hadn’t actually been as “dangerously close to” becoming overfished as managers had believed. But it clearly shows that the Council’s prompt response to the perceived threat did halt a sharp, four-year decline in the summer flounder population, and spurred an immediate increase in abundance.

Thus, the stories of the striped bass and the summer flounder provide a chance to compare two very different models of fishery management.

Striped bass management, which has been so fervently praised by an element of the angling community, is notably risk-tolerant. Striped bass managers, like the authors of the Vision Report, give their highest priority to stable, predictable regulations and maintaining harvest levels. They are reluctant to reduce landings in order to avoid a predicted threat to the stock, deeming such action “overmanaging,” and only act when faced with an immediate problem.

Such approach to fishery management has left the public with an overfished striped bass stock that is still experiencing overfishing, and has left recreational fishermen with a degraded striped bass fishery that is just a shadow of what it was a decade ago.

The federal fishery managers responsible for summer flounder, on the other hand, must abide by the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which prohibit overfishing and require the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks. Such provisions have made them risk-averse. Compared to striped bass managers, they are far more willing to do whatever they believe might be needed to prevent the stock from becoming overfished.

Such approach to fishery management has provided the public with a consistently healthy summer flounder stock, and will provide recreational summer flounder fishermen with an increase in harvest this year.

As the 116th Congress gets down to business, it’s likely that the same segments of the recreational community that gave us the Vision Report and the Approaches Report will again try to alter Magnuson-Stevens. They will again argue that federal recreational fisheries shouldn’t be subject to annual catch limits, and should be managed “like striped bass.”

But recreational fisheries thrive on abundance. Recreational fishermen are more likely to fish when they know that they have a reasonable chance of finding, and catching, the fish that they seek. They’re not getting that chance from the overfished striped bass stock.

A fishery management model that allowed striped bass to decline to crisis levels is not a fishery management model appropriate for recreational fisheries.

So perhaps it is time to stop saying that “Federal fisheries should be managed like striped bass.”

And time to start saying, “Striped bass should be managed like federal fisheries.”

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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