Top photo by John McMurray
Striped bass are one of the United States’ most important recreational fish. Between 2010 and 2019, anglers landed more striped bass (measured in pounds) than any other saltwater fish.
The bass has paid for its popularity. A benchmark stock assessment released in April 2019 found that female spawning stock biomass (SSB) had fallen so low that the stock has become overfished. It also found that fishermen were still removing too many bass from the water, subjecting the stock to continued overfishing.
The benchmark assessment’s findings seemed to catch some state fishery managers by surprise. But they didn’t surprise striped bass anglers, some of whom had spent the past decade trying to convince the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board to take steps to reverse the species’ decline.
However, the management board showed no inclination to do so. Over the past decade, it has been given repeated warnings that the SSB was in decline, and that the striped bass stock was headed for trouble. Yet each time, the management board has opted to either do nothing, or to take indifferent action that fell far short of what was needed to rebuild the stock, even when rebuilding was explicitly required in the striped bass management.
Its long history of ineffective management culminated in 2019 when, after learning that the striped bass stock was both overfished and experiencing overfishing, the management board adopted an addendum to the striped bass management plan that it knew was more likely to fail than to succeed in reducing fishing mortality to its target level. At the same time, the management board, for the second time in just five years, ignored its clear obligation to initiate a 10-year rebuilding plan.
The management board has now embarked on a path that will end in the adoption of a new amendment, Amendment 7, to its striped bass management plan. Given the importance of the striped bass fishery, and the fact that the striped bass stock is now overfished, we can only hope that the management board will do everything in its power to ensure that the new amendment, when finally adopted, will promote the long-term health and sustainability of the striped bass stock.
That may be expecting too much from the management board.
For when the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (PID), which seeks public comment on the direction that Amendment 7 should take, was released, we learned that the rebuilding the SSB and achieving sustainable fishing mortality levels were not among the management board’s highest priorities. In fact, those two pillars of competent fisheries management didn’t appear to be priorities at all.
Instead, the PID informs readers that “The [Management] Board identified management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency as guiding themes for future striped bass management.”
That’s troubling, for the management board’s past embrace of two of those favored “themes,” management stability and flexibility, only accelerated the SSB’s decline.
Yet the management board seems eager to double down on its flawed approach to striped bass management. The PID includes statements like “the shorter timetables for corrective action [in the current management plan] are in conflict with the desire for management stability,” and “a quota-based management approach conflicts with the stated objective of management stability for the fishery.”
Yet PID doesn’t comment on far more important questions: Would shorter timetables for corrective action and a quota-based management approach allow more effective management of the striped bass stock? Would such management measures make it easier to rebuild the SSB, prevent overfishing, and keep the stock from being overfished again?
After all, the primary job of the management board is to protect the long-term health and sustainability of the striped bass stock. Subordinating that obligation to a bureaucratic ideal like management stability is a clear dereliction of the management board’s duty to both the public and to the striped bass resource.
History teaches us how that works out.
In November 2011, the management board failed to reduce fishing mortality after a stock assessment update warned that striped bass would become overfished by 2017. Believing that the SSB was still above the biomass target, it declared striped bass to be a “green light fishery,” decided that any action taken to avert future problems would constitute “overmanaging,” and opted for stability.
If the management board had instead taken decisive action when the stock was still healthy instead of waiting for things to get worse, the striped bass might not be overfished today.
History teaches us about “flexibility,” too.
A “Work Group” report, which guided the PID drafting process, explained
Some [Work Group members] felt that incorporating more flexibility into the management triggers [that require Management Board action] could give managers the ability to make adjustments that make sense while still being accountable for their management actions. For example…there is a 1-year response [requiring the Management Board to take action] for exceeding the F-threshold [and overfishing the striped bass stock]…Some stakeholders support the 1-year requirement for change while others believe that it promotes ‘knee-jerk’ reactions that may not always be necessary. It was discussed that there could be a goal to find balance that promotes conservation while also considering the impacts that changes in regulation have on commercial and recreational industries.
Incorporating that sort of “flexibility” into Amendment 7 would merely reinforce the management board’s inclination to do nothing when problems that threaten the striped bass stock first arise, and can most easily be addressed.
Even without a formal endorsement of “flexible” striped bass management, the management board ignored its clear obligation to initiate a 10-year rebuilding plan in 2014, when the SSB was in steep decline, and again in 2019, when it became overfished. Given the management board’s track record of inaction when the bass stock is threatened, it’s daunting to contemplate how little they’d do if such inaction was explicitly condoned in Amendment 7.
The management board’s long history of inaction renders its fixation on making management stability and flexibility the focus of Amendment 7 difficult to understand. A quarter-century ago, the striped bass stock was declared fully recovered; recreational management measures that included a 2-fish bag limit and 28-inch minimum size for the coastal fishery, and complimentary measures for nursery areas such as the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay, were adopted. Since then, recreational management measures were only changed twice.
The first change came in 2014, in response to a stock assessment that found the SSB in decline. The second came in 2019, after the stock was declared overfished. Two changes over the course of twenty-five years, both in response to clear and present threats to the health of the stock, hardly justify such a focus on stability and inaction, instead of rebuilding the SSB.
If the management board was governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), as federal fishery managers are, such issues would never arise, as MSA elevates the health and sustainability of fish stocks above all other concerns.
Pursuant to MSA, managers must “develop annual catch limits…that may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of its scientific and statistical committee;” thus, such limits are set by scientists, not by the amateur fishery managers who dominate the management board. If fishermen exceed those limits in any given year, MSA holds them accountable for doing so.
Had striped bass been managed pursuant to MSA back in 2011, it’s very likely that the management board’s scientific advisors would have set a lower annual catch limit, and so reduced fishing mortality to prevent the stock from becoming overfished. The management board would have been unable to idly sit by and observe the SSB’s decline.
And had bass been managed pursuant to MSA in 2014, when the management board, finally recognizing the need to reduce fishing mortality, adopted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (Addendum IV), the management board would not have been able to just sit on its hands and watch when state regulations failed to adequately constrain fishermen’s landings.
That would have made a particular difference in Maryland where anglers, instead of reducing their fishing mortality by 20.5 percent, increased it substantially. Instead of landing 570,000 fish each year, as contemplated by Addendum IV, they took home far more in every year between 2015 and 2019, reaching a high of over 1,500,000 striped bass in 2016.
The management board knew that, yet did nothing. Instead of holding Maryland anglers accountable, it opted for management stability, and allowed such excessive harvests to continue, while the SSB continued to decline. Had MSA applied, Maryland anglers would have been held accountable for their excesses. At the least, state regulations would have been changed to adequately constrain anglers’ future landings, but pound-for-pound paybacks might also have been in the cards.
If striped bass were managed pursuant to MSA back in 2014, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) might also have found itself in court. The ASMFC’s striped bass management plan clearly states that, when the SSB falls below target for two or more years, and fishing mortality also rises above its target level, “the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target [emphasis added]” in no more than 10 years. Such management trigger was tripped in 2014, but the management board took no action.
It could ignore the clear language of the management plan because, in 2010, a federal appellate court found that the ASMFC’s management actions weren’t subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedures Act. MSA, on the other hand, specifically provides for judicial review of all actions taken under its aegis.
In 2019, when the striped bass was found to be both overfished and experiencing overfishing, MSA would have made even a bigger difference.
Although the management plan required the management board to initiate a 10-year rebuilding plan upon learning that the stock had become overfished, that provision of the management pan was, once again, ignored. Depending on how Amendment 7 turns out, such rebuilding may never occur. If bass had been governed by MSA, the management board would have been legally obligated to implement a rebuilding plan no more than two years after being notified that the stock was overfished. Under such a provision, rebuilding would have been underway by May 2021, in time for the upcoming season.
Even the limited action that the management board did take, when it implemented Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (Addendum VI) at the end of 2019, wasn’t enough to meet the MSA’s standards. Addendum VI was intended to reduce fishing mortality to the target level, but because the management board allowed states to adopt their own, flexible regulations, and so limited Amendment VI’s effectiveness, the addendum only has a 42 percent probability of achieving its goal. Under MSA, that’s not good enough; management measures must have at least a 50 percent chance of success to pass legal muster.
At the management board’s February 2021 meeting, Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s chief marine fisheries manager, advised the board that stakeholders were “losing faith” in the management board’s stewardship of the striped bass stock. Dr. Davis is right.
How can stakeholders not lose faith in a management board that has repeatedly failed the striped bass, and believes that maintaining “management stability” is more important than promptly rebuilding an overfished stock?
At one time, the federal fishery management councils were just as ineffective as the management board. They failed to rebuild overfished stocks, didn’t get fishing mortality under control, and, like the management board, often prioritized the short-term wants of the fishing industry above the long-term needs of fish stocks.
Congress responded to that problem by passing the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which amended the MSA to include clear legal standards for the conservation and management of federal fisheries. Ten years later, Congress amended MSA again, to require science-based annual catch limits for all managed species, and hold fishermen accountable when those limits are exceeded. Now, MSA is arguably the most successful fishery management law in the world.
Considering the management board’s history of inaction when faced with a declining and depleted stock, it may take similar congressional action to secure the future of the striped bass, and restore stakeholder’s faith in the ASMFC’s management system.