The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) held its regular summer meeting on August 3-6, when it addressed a number of issues that will impact anglers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
Big decision on Atlantic menhaden
The biggest news to come out of the meeting was the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board’s (Menhaden Board) decision to adopt so-called “ecological reference points” for menhaden management. Such decision marked a watershed in menhaden management; this important forage fish will now be managed in a way that maintains its traditional role in coastal ecosystems rather than merely for sustainable harvest.
It also marks what is hopefully the end of a long, hard fight that began in the mid-1990s to change the way menhaden were managed. When that battle began, the ASMFC’s menhaden management plan required that the menhaden reduction industry hold half of the seats on the Menhaden Board and related scientific bodies; in the past twenty-five years or so, thanks to the unceasing efforts of many angling and conservation organizations, along with engaged private citizens, the ASMFC has now reached the point where menhaden managers recognize that the species’ highest and best use is to serve as forage for a host of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals, and not as feedstock that the industry can reduce into fish meal, oils and similar products.
Because so many different species rely on menhaden for at least a part of their diet, it was impossible for scientists to create a model that considers the effects of menhaden abundance on every menhaden predator. Instead, the original ecological reference point-based stock assessment considered only a handful of species, including striped bass, weakfish, bluefish, spiny dogfish and Atlantic herring, the latter another forage species that predators could feed on as an alternative to menhaden. Follow-up research found that striped bass and some seabirds showed the greatest sensitivity to menhaden availability; scientists determined that a menhaden abundance level capable of sustaining the female striped bass spawning stock biomass at its target level would be adequate to sustain all other species as well.
Although some stakeholders still disagreed with the need for ecological reference points, the Menhaden Board, in a unanimous vote, agreed to adopt them and to set the target fishing mortality rate for menhaden at the rate that will maintain the menhaden biomass at a level sufficient to support striped bass at its biomass target. The threshold fishing mortality rate, beyond which overfishing is deemed to occur, will be that rate which maintains the menhaden biomass at a level sufficient to support the striped bass biomass at its threshold level.
The next test for the Menhaden Board will come in October when it decides upon the annual catch limit for the 2021 season; if it agrees to set such limit at a level that keeps fishing mortality below the target, and isn’t persuaded by the reduction industry’s calls for “flexibility” to allow fishing mortality above that level, then we will have reason to believe that the path of menhaden has made a real change, and that the species will be managed primarily for their ecological value in the future.
New amendment to striped bass management plan initiated
After deferring action for more than a year, the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Bass Board) voted to move forward with a comprehensive amendment to the striped bass management plan, which will consider just about every aspect of striped bass management.
In 2018, a benchmark stock assessment found that the striped bass was both overfished and subject to overfishing. That finding served to widen a rift between Bass Board members that has been apparent at least since Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan was adopted in 2014.
On one side, there are managers from states such as Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, who envision an amendment that sets a lower biomass target, allows higher annual landings, and focuses on the short-term economic and social benefits that such higher landings can bring. Some such managers, most particularly Maryland’s Michael Luisi, have characterized the current biomass target as unrealistically high, and have claimed that maintaining it raises false expectations among stakeholders seeking greater striped bass abundance.
On the other side sit many of the fishery managers from New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, who hope to craft an amendment that will be conservative enough to rebuild striped bass and prevent the stock from experiencing the sort of sharp decline that led to it becoming overfished once again. One of those managers, G. Ritchie White, New Hampshire’s Governor’s Appointee, has openly expressed his hope that, far from relaxing regulations, the new amendment will usher in more conservative management than that which prevails today.
While it’s impossible to know what shape the new amendment will ultimately take, the Bass Board has asked the Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team to prepare a public information document, which could be completed as soon as October and will ask for public input on possible topics to be covered by the amendment. In preparing the public information document, the plan development team will be guided by a report prepared by a work group created by the Bass Board and tasked with identifying issues that any new amendment ought to address.
That could pose a problem for conservation advocates, as the work group focused on three general themes, which included regulatory stability, flexibility, and management consistency. A desire for regulatory consistency could reinforce the Bass Board’s demonstrated reluctance to take action to reduce landings before the striped bass stock becomes overfished or experiences overfishing, while additional management flexibility will only provide an excuse for the Bass Board to do nothing even though the stock has already become overfished or experiences overfishing, and clear language in the management plan says that the Bass Board “must” act.
The public information document is also expected to include options that would change the “reference points” used to determine the health of the stock, and permanently reduce striped bass abundance.
Perhaps surprisingly, the work group identified recreational release mortality as the biggest problem facing the striped bass fishery. Over the years, the striped bass fishery has evolved to the point that it is overwhelmingly a recreational fishery, and overwhelmingly a catch-and-release fishery, with anglers responsible for 90% of all fishing mortality, even though they release more than 90% of the bass that they catch. As a result, between 45% and 50% of all fishing mortality is the result of release mortality.
Fishery managers have focused on that release mortality as an issue, despite the fact that the best available science suggests that 10 out of every 11 striped bass released do not die. Instead, perhaps because they still focus on maximizing harvest and don’t understand how to manage a catch-and-release fishery, managers seem to view release mortality as a somehow bigger problem than harvest mortality, even though, on a fish-by-fish basis, both have exactly the same impact on the striped bass population.
Thus, beginning in October, conservation-minded anglers should be on the lookout for the public information document, and should be prepared to speak out against any provisions that might risk long-term harm to the striped bass stock once it is released for public comment.
The date of such release is still uncertain; a number of Bass Board members advised slowing down the public information document’s development and not release it until the threat of COVID-19 has fallen low enough to allow the ASMFC to hold in-person hearings. However, there is no guarantee that will happen, so everyone must be prepared to present comments in online hearings, by email or by mail once the opportunity to do so arises.
We will keep you informed as this issue develops.
Bluefish rebuilding and reallocation amendment moves forward
The ASMFC’s Bluefish Management Board (Bluefish Board) and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) met jointly in order to further shape the pending Bluefish Allocation and Rebuilding Amendment (Rebuilding Amendment).
For the most part, the issues discussed by the Council and Bluefish Board at the August meeting will not impact anglers or the health of the bluefish stock; most addressed issues related to commercial allocation and other matters that would not impact overall fishing mortality. However, the Council and Bluefish Board did decide to remove sector separation—that is, creating different regulations, and probably separate harvest limits and accountability measures, for the surf/private boat and for-hire sectors—from the Rebuilding Amendment. Instead, such issue will be addressed, on a multi-species basis, in a possible “recreational reform” action being considered by the Council and the ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Management Board.
The Council and Bluefish Board will have to prepare a draft Rebuilding Amendment, which could be reviewed and adopted by the Bluefish Board as early as its October meeting. After that, such amendment will go out for public hearing, and the input from such hearing will hopefully be incorporated into a final version of the Rebuilding Amendment, which will then have to be approved by both management bodies no later than May, or possibly August. That will provide enough time for the final version of the amendment to go through the federal rebuilding process and be adopted within the two-year deadline for rebuilding plans established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Any measures adopted in the Rebuilding Amendment should be in place for the 2022 season.