The ASMFC’s Big Mistake

Striped Bass

Striped Bass Photo by John McMurray

The 1980s and early 1990s were a bad time for Atlantic Coast fisheries.

While the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 had successfully pushed most foreign fishing vessels out of U.S. waters, it failed to protect fish populations from overharvest by the United States’ fleet, while providing domestic fishermen with financial incentives to build larger, more efficient boats that could land even greater numbers of fish.

As a result, the populations of many New England groundfish, such as cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder, continued to fall. In the Mid-Atlantic, summer flounder abundance fell to an all-time low in 1989. All along the coast, fish were becoming harder to find.

The Atlantic striped bass stock, suffering from years of overfishing and unfavorable spawning conditions in critical Chesapeake Bay tributaries, had collapsed by the early 1980s. Things had gotten so bad that some fishermen were calling for striped bass to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, and despaired of ever seeing a healthy population again.

However, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), newly empowered to manage the fishery by the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, had not given up. In a last-ditch effort to rebuild the collapsed population, it adopted Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Amendment 3) in 1985.

Amendment 3 was short and simple. It required all states to protect the relatively large, if still below-average, 1982 year class of striped bass, and all subsequent year classes, until they were large enough to spawn at least once. The goal was to keep the annual fishing mortality rate on such year classes below five percent.

As a result of the ASMFC’s efforts, the striped bass population was successfully rebuilt by 1995, just ten years after Amendment 3 was put in place.

The ASMFC’s restoration of the striped bass stock was a landmark event. At the time that it happened, it was probably the most successful restoration of a marine fish population that had ever occurred on the East Coast; it may have been the most successful restoration anywhere in the world.

That success convinced Congress to pass the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which gave the ASMFC the authority to manage a number of other inshore fish stocks. Unfortunately, Congress’ faith in the ASMFC process was apparently misplaced, as rebuilding the striped bass population was not only the ASMFC’s first, but also its last, management victory. Since then, it has failed to restore even one additional overfished stock. A recent benchmark stock assessment has revealed that striped bass are once again overfished, as well.

How did the ASMFC, which once was a leader in successful fishery management, become so ineffective? The answer probably lies in a change that it made to its Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter (ASMFC Charter) soon after striped bass were restored.

Political Influence Takes Over ASMFC Management

In 1995, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board looked very different than it does today. While it was still composed of each state’s professional marine fisheries manager, governor’s appointee and legislative appointee, only the state fisheries managers were allowed to vote. The appointees served in a largely advisory capacity, and did not cast individual votes on management matters.

Thus, when the ASMFC successfully restored the striped bass population, all of its management decisions were made by experienced fishery managers, who fully understood, and relied on, the scientific information provided to them.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, that structure set the ASMFC apart from the federal fishery management councils, which were dominated by fishermen and fishing industry representatives who tended to elevate their own short-term interests over the long-term health of fish stocks.

In 1996, Congress cured many of those problems when it passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), which required, for the first time, that federal fishery management plans prevent overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks. The new law made conservation a priority, and in doing so, made it much more difficult for members of the regional fishery management councils to cast votes that would benefit them, but harm the fish that they were entrusted to manage.

Thanks to SFA, and to later amendments to federal fisheries law, the National Marine Fisheries Service was able to sharply reduce overfishing and fully rebuild 45 once-overfished stocks.

But at its 1998 annual meeting, the ASMFC decided to take a step backward.

It initiated a pilot program that adopted a so-called “caucus” voting system, pursuant to which each state would cast a single vote, which represented the majority view off such state’s three commissioners. That meant that the political appointees (or their proxies, who were often fishermen or otherwise connected to the fishing industry), who typically had no formal education in fishery management, could override the professional judgment of their state’s fishery manager.

Thus, the science-based system that rebuilt the striped bass population was replaced by a system largely dependent on the uninformed opinions of political appointees and their proxies, who often had personal motivations that caused them to vote against management measures recommended by the ASMFC’s staff biologists.

The results were predictable: the ASMFC’s efforts to rebuild fish stalled. Some once-healthy populations went into decline.

Surprisingly, no one at the ASMFC seemed to have any reservations about the new system. At a 1999 meeting of the ASMFC’s Policy Board, one commissioner noted that “The [Legislative and Governors’ Appointees] believe the program is working very well, calling it an unmitigated success and that we haven’t seen any downside to it at all.” Given such support, the ASMFC Charter was amended to permanently adopt caucus voting, and so grant greater power to the governors’ and legislative appointees.

After that, economic concerns began to dominate management discussions. The ASMFC management boards developed a strong bias in favor of maintaining harvest levels, and a corresponding reluctance to impose the sort of landings restrictions that were needed to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish stocks.

Weak Management of Weakfish

One of the most egregious examples occurred in 2009, when biologists informed the Weakfish Management Board that “No matter what threshold we use, [the weakfish stock] is at record low levels…There is no other way to say that. At this point stock rebuilding should be a main concern…Even with a moratorium, rebuilding would be slow…”

Given such advice, state fishery managers from Maryland and North Carolina put a motion on the table that would have shut down both the commercial and recreational weakfish fisheries.

That motion didn’t sit well with the many of the appointees, who sought to protect the industry. Foremost among them was the governor’s appointee from New Jersey, who argued against the motion, saying

I’m looking at a solution that doesn’t basically shut down a complete fishery

You know, we also talk about we’re supposed to build a sustainable fishery for a sustainable industry. If you start closing down both those industries, it takes a long time for that industry to recover. Yes, if we want to do away with the fishing industry, both recreational and commercial, we seem to be going in the right way. The numbers are going down whether it is a commercial fisherman, whether it is a bait shop, whether it is a tackle shop or a charterboat or a partyboat. I mean, I think the Compact [that created the ASMFC] says to build sustainable fisheries and fisheries that can be sustained.

His full comment was quite a bit longer. In it, the New Jersey appointee expressed his concerns for the fishing industry, and his belief that fishermen ought to have “at least…one fish to take home.”

But he didn’t express any concern for the weakfish at all.

He was not alone. The governor’s appointee from New York remarked that

It’s interesting that with this action that we may take we will again affect the fishermen and will only play a small role, in my mind, in continuing to lead us toward a full demise of this specie [sic] of fish.

Similar as to winter flounder where we in New York went through an exercise in the last couple of weeks where we almost put a moratorium on winter flounder, we would have been one of two states that would have done that, which would have put a further hit on recreational, commercial and bait and tackle people and marinas and so on for those supplies.

Once again, all of the appointee’s concerns were for the fishing industry. None were for the fish. As a result of such sentiments, no moratorium was ever imposed. Weakfish remain very scarce.

Restoring Science-based Management at the ASMFC

Often, instead of seeing the ASMFC commissioners arguing about the best way to restore declining fish stocks, we see them arguing about whether such stocks ought to be restored at all.

In 2014, after a benchmark stock assessment found that the striped bass population had nearly become overfished, the proxy for Maryland’s legislative appointee refused to accept the assessment’s findings. He instead argued that “At this time, we’ve probably got more striped bass in the bay than I’ve ever seen in my life. We’ve got so many striped bass that it has affected our crab-catching industry…When the charterboats catch the striped bass and they clean them, you can count anywhere from ten to forty small crabs in the belly of a rockfish. This would also hurt our charterboat industry…”

While such arguments hardly constitute science-based management, they’re not uncommon at the ASMFC.

As a New York striped bass fisherman noted in a recent email to the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board,

In looking for a root cause to the problems we now have with Striped Bass, there is compelling evidence of the need to better clarify Board roles, in order to strengthen the overall decision-making capabilities at the Management Board level. ASMFC Guiding Documents clearly spell out the educational/technical qualifications for those conducting stock assessments, and assessing management options. There does not appear to be a similar list of qualifications for Commissioners. The end result can be (has been) Commissioners who have the power to caucus to dismiss or veto the science, even in the absurd case when they admit that they do not fully understand it.

To be more direct, science-based decisions on biological reference points, or levels of fishing mortality needed to adhere to those reference points, should not be made or influenced by political appointees who have no relevant background or training.

It’s a valid point.

Fisheries management is a complex scientific process. Thus, fishery management decisions should be made by scientists, not by untrained appointees who might not understand the science, but do understand that they have economic or other interests that will be affected by management decisions.

At the ASMFC, such appointees dominate every management board. It’s an effective way to protect the economic interests of industry members, but not a very good way to protect the public interest in healthy fish stocks.

Unfortunately, the current situation isn’t likely to change. The ASMFC made a big mistake years ago when it took management decisions out of professional managers’ hands and made them hostage to the whims of political appointees. To correct that mistake, the appointees would have to be willing to cede their current power and return to their former advisory role.

That’s not likely to happen in the real world.

The ASMFC finds itself in the same place that the federal fishery management councils were caught in prior to passage of the SFA, a place where council members voted in ways that benefitted themselves and their industries, and did long-term harm to fish stocks.

Congress can get the ASMFC to a far better place by passing a bill similar to SFA that limited commissioners’ discretion and required them to adhere to science-based management measures, avoid overfishing, and promptly rebuild overfished stocks.

If such a bill ever became law, the ASMFC could again become an effective fisheries manager, and don the mantle of leadership that it sadly abandoned two decades ago.

About Charles Witek

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

3 comments on “The ASMFC’s Big Mistake

  1. Charles Witek is spot on. As the USFWS representative for the ASMFC during this time, the seeds of disfunctionality were sown during this time.
    Basically defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. Can the ASMFC return to its roots of science based management with the goal of restoring fish populations ? The answer is yes, but both state and federal fishery managers need to be in charge with strong congressional support!

  2. I agree it has become quite clear that the ASMFC needs to be brought under the wing of or at least held to the same standards as Magnuson-Stevens. We have neither good conservation practices or good practices but a process tainted by political influence instead of sound conservation and management of stocks.

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