Black sea bass, photo by Charlie Witek.
When the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Bluefish and Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Boards (Management Boards) held a series of joint meetings early in October 2019, they addressed a number of recreational fisheries issues that, in their range and scope, probably hasn’t been equaled since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 first required the federal fishery management councils to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks.
Revised recreational catch estimates drive the discussion
As was true two decades ago, the current issues have arisen out of a single event, although this time, that event wasn’t new legislation, but instead was the revision of recreational catch and effort estimates, as reported by the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).
For many years, the number of fishing trips that anglers took each year was estimated through the use of a telephone survey, but such survey proved unreliable, particularly as the use of cell phones became more widespread. To improve the effort estimates, MRIP now relies on a mail survey, which has proven to be far more accurate. In January 2017, the National Academy of Science released a report, Review of the Marine Recreational Information Program, in which it noted that “The methodologies associated with the current Fishing Effort Survey, including the address-based sampling mail survey design, are major improvements from the original Coastal Household Telephone Survey that employed random-digit dialing to contact anglers.”
The improved effort survey unexpectedly determined that recreational fishermen fish much more, and catch many more fish, than fisheries managers had previously believed. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, although some members of the recreational community initially panicked when they heard the new numbers, believing that they meant that anglers were engaged in wholesale overfishing of just about every stock.
That wasn’t really the case.
It turns out that recreational catch estimates are incorporated into every assessment of recreationally important fish stocks. In particular, they are included in virtual population analyses, which use historical catch estimates to calculate the past size of fish populations; such calculations are then projected forward to assess the populations’ current state. Such analyses are rooted in the notion that, if fishermen are catching more fish than believed, then the fish populations must be larger than previously believed as well, or else they would not have been able to support such higher level of landings.
That’s exactly what was the MAFMC and the Management Boards discovered in October, when they met to consider a recent operational assessment of the bluefish, scup and black sea bass stocks and set harvest limits for the 2020 and 2021 fishing years. In every case, the operational assessment found that recreational catch and effort was higher than previously thought, and in every case, that finding led to higher estimates of population size. But that’s where the commonality stopped, for those findings had very different implications for each of the species involved.
Bluefish are overfished
The operational assessment probably had the greatest impact on the bluefish fishery, which it found to be overfished, although overfishing was not occurring in 2018, the operational assessment’s terminal year. While the operational assessment found bluefish biomass to be higher than previously believed, it also determined that the biomass target and threshold should be set at levels nearly twice as high as they were before.
The operational assessment also revealed that the recreational bluefish landings were about 3.3 times higher than former estimates. Such an increased level of removals had a very significant impact on the operational assessment, and led to the conclusion that the stock had become overfished. But there was one other interesting aspect to the higher catch estimate. It appears that recreational releases increased at a higher rate than the recreational catch itself, and as a result, release mortality, which is thought to equal about 15% of all bluefish released, also increased.
The recreational discard issue also involved another twist. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (Science Center) determined that, for many years, the total weight of the dead discards has been badly underestimated.
For many years, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) merely took the average weight of the bluefish encountered during the MRIP creel survey, and multiplied that by the presumed 15% of the released fish that do not survive. But the Science Center looked at some data from the American Littoral Society’s Fish Tagging Program and from three states’ voluntary angler surveys, and found that anglers tended to release larger bluefish, and keep the smaller ones.
That tendency to keep the smaller fish and release the large ones wasn’t reflected in the GARFO estimates, but any bluefish angler would probably believe that the Science Center’s finding was right.
Bluefish can be an oily, strong-tasting fish, which grow oilier and stronger-tasting as they grow larger and feed on forage fish such as menhaden. Thus, most recreational fishermen, if they keep any bluefish at all, usually do prefer to keep the smaller fish, which are comparatively mild-flavored. However, if the MAFMC and Bluefish Management Board accepted the Science Center’s release mortality figure, they would be compelled to reduce the recreational harvest limit from 11.62 million pounds in 2019 to just 3.62 million pounds in 2020.
While the 3.62 million pound harvest limit probably represented the best available science, it was clear that MAFMC and Bluefish Management Board members weren’t prepared to slash landings to such a low level. They chose to accept the GARFO estimate of release mortality, which then allowed them to set a recreational harvest limit of 9.48 million pounds, just 2 million pounds less than the limit in 2019.
Because of the higher, revised recreational landings estimate, which showed that anglers landed their entire bluefish allocation, there will be no transfer of supposedly unused recreational quota to the commercial sector in 2020, which will be the first year since 1998 when such transfer does not occur. The higher estimate almost certainly also means that the pending allocation amendment which, among other things, would have permanently transferred some recreational quota to the commercial sector, will not move forward in its current form.
Because the bluefish stock is overfished, conservation provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) require that the MAFMC initiate a rebuilding plan that will restore the stock to the target level within ten years. Such plan must be implemented within two years after the MAFMC is formally notified, by the Secretary of Commerce or his designee, that the stock is overfished. Such notification is expected to occur in December 2019. Once such notification is received, the MAFMC will probably expand the allocation amendment to include the rebuilding plan, at which point allocation will become a secondary consideration.
2020’s reduced recreational harvest limit will probably lead to more restrictive regulations. The fact that 2019 recreational bluefish landings through August 31 were about 50% higher than they were for the same period in 2018 makes such added restrictions even more likely, even before the depressed state of the stock is taken into consideration.
Scup anglers squeezed by small quota
It appears that larger than expected scup landings will also force scup anglers to face substantial landings reductions in 2020, even though the operational assessment found spawning stock biomass to be at about 200% of the target level at the end of 2018. Any such recreational catch reductions won’t be driven by the needs of the stock, or by Magnuson-Stevens, but rather by a fishery management plan that allocated only a 22% of the overall catch to the recreational sector.
The commercial fishery, which is allocated 78% of the catch, has been chronically unable to catch its entire quota. Between 2015 and 2018, it only landed between 55% and 84% of its scup quota. There is just too little demand for the fish, which fishermen sell for about $0.70 per pound, far less than they receive for fish such as black sea bass or summer flounder, which can generate ex vessel prices in the $3 to $4 range.
As a result of the commercial underharvest, scup are not experiencing overfishing despite the high recreational catch. Even though the annual catch limits will be reduced slightly in 2020 and 2021 in response to poor spawning success in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the commercial underage, if transferred to the recreational fishery, should still be large enough to avoid harsh restrictions on anglers.
Unfortunately, the fishery management plan, as currently written, doesn’t allow for such transfers, and there is no time to amend the plan prior to the 2020 fishing season. GARFO staff are hoping to find a legally and procedurally viable solution to the problem before then. If they can’t, scup anglers could be facing very restrictive regulations next year, even though the scup stock continues to thrive.
Black sea bass biomass declines
Black sea bass anglers will probably also be facing more restrictions in 2020, even though the spawning stock biomass was about 240% of the target level at the end of 2018. In this case, recreational landings reductions will be driven by a trifecta of higher than expected landings, high levels of angler effort and a black sea bass spawning stock that, while still large, has been steadily declining in size since 2014.
It is clear that recent recruitment won’t maintain current black sea bass abundance. The 2015 year class, once thought to equal the huge year class of 2011, turned out to be only about half its size, while the 2017 year class was the smallest in the entire 30-year time series. While, thanks in large part to the revised recreational catch figures, the recreational harvest limit will be significantly larger in 2020 than it was in 2019, it will begin to decline after that in concert with declining black sea bass abundance.
Even with the higher 2020 catch limit, recreational landings will probably need to be reduced by about 30% to prevent overfishing. Unless angling effort declines, further restrictions on recreational black sea bass fishing are inevitable as the stock continues to decline toward the target abundance level.
Is reallocation part of the answer?
Some members of the recreational fishing community have criticized the revised recreational catch and effort estimates because they are likely to lead to additional restrictions on anglers. However, the same revised estimates could also lead to further increases in recreational harvest limits.
That’s because recreational landings data dating as far back as 1981 have been revised upwards. Those upward revisions include the so-called “base years” used to determine the recreational and commercial allocations. It now appears that such allocations were based on data that underestimated the recreational share of the landings.
If allocations were revised to reflect what are now believed to be more accurate recreational landings estimates, anglers would receive a larger share all of the recreationally-important species managed by the MAFMC. That might be particularly important in the case of scup, which would see anglers’ share of the catch increase substantially, from 22% to 35%. Such an increase might be enough to eliminate the need for potentially crippling harvest restrictions on anglers, while doing little harm to the commercial fishery, since it typically underharvests its allocation.
The increase in anglers’ share of other fisheries would be far smaller, but still significant. The recreational summer flounder allocation would increase from 40% to 45% of landings, while the recreational share of black sea bass landings would increase from 51% to 55%. In the case of bluefish, the recreational allocation could increase from 83% to 90%.
It’s impossible to predict whether any or all of those allocation changes will be made. The MAFMC and the ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board voted to initiate an amendment to consider the allocations of summer flounder, scup and black sea bass at the October meeting.
The reallocation effort will undoubtedly be opposed by commercial fishermen, although it could be argued that any allocation change based on the revised MRIP estimates is not so much a true reallocation than a correction, with the new allocation merely representing what the recreational and commercial catch actually was during the long-established base years.
In any event, the reallocation, should it be made, will not happen soon. The best estimate is that the amendment will take about two years to complete.
Anglers are thus less focused on any possible reallocation than they are on the December joint meeting of the MAFMC and the Management Boards, when the new recreational harvest limits will be compared to anglers’ estimated harvest in 2019, and regulations governing the 2020 recreational fishery will first be proposed.
It’s still too early to know what those regulations will look like, but given the discussion at the October joint meeting, it seems likely that they could be restrictive enough to incite many anglers to support the reallocation effort.