Solid Win for Striped Bass at the ASMFC

A strong Magnuson-Stevens Act allowed striped bass to grow to sustainable levels, like this one caught September, 2016 off Block Island by Steve Brustein of Maine on No Fluke Charters.

Top photo via Dave Monti

On Wednesday, May 5, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) met to discuss the comments that it received on the issues presented in the Public Information Document For Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (PID).

The Management Board held eleven webinar/hearings throughout the month of March, seeking stakeholder comment on such issues, and also accepted written comments during that time. Those providing comments overwhelmingly favored conservative management of the striped bass resource, and urged the Management Board to promptly rebuild the striped bass stock, which has become overfished.

Despite such comments, many long-time striped bass fishermen and conservation advocates had low expectations for the meeting.

The Management Board had historically been reluctant to restrict striped bass landings, even when faced with threats to the health of the stock. Prior to drafting the PID, it had created a “Work Group” to consider the issues that might be included in the proposed Amendment 7. To many stakeholders’ dismay, the Work Group’s final report did not focus on the need to rebuild and maintain a healthy striped bass stock. Instead, it proposed three “themes” of management, stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency, which seemed to promote continued inaction rather than more effective management.

The Work Group report also suggested that the current spawning stock biomass target might be too high, and that the Management Board might wish to lower it to a level that would permit higher landings, even if such landings would increase long-term risk to the stock. Based on such suggestion, the PID contained language stating that “the current reference points may be unattainable given current objectives for fishery performance.”

Work Group members opined that the biggest issue facing striped bass wasn’t overfishing, or recent poor recruitment, but the number of bass that died after being released by recreational fishermen.

Thus, anglers could be excused if they expected the worst as the meeting began.

Yet, as the Management Board was called to order, things took an unexpected turn. Patrick Keliher, the current Chair of the ASMFC, addressed the Board before deliberations began. He said, in part, that “While we’re not at the point we were in 1984, the downward trend in the stock is evident in the assessment. For many of the Commission’s species, we are no longer in a position to hold hope that things will revert to what they have previously been if we just hold static. The change is happening too fast and action needs to be taken.”

With that said, and after a brief discussion of issues unrelated to the PID, the Management Board began to decide which issues ought to be included in the first draft of Amendment 7.

Regional Disagreements

It quickly became clear that the Management Board was divided into two camps, with the New England states, joined by New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia heeding the stakeholders’ call for strong conservation and management measures, while a smaller group, composed of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, either sought or, at least, was willing to consider changes to the management plan that would lead to larger harvests but a permanently diminished stock.

Thus, Dennis Abbott, the Legislative Proxy from New Hampshire, noted that “I don’t think in all my years I have ever saw [sic] comments presented so thoroughly and so well thought out,” while representatives from other jurisdictions, which sought to undermine the strong public support for striped bass conservation, tried to impeach the stakeholders’ comments.

Marty Gary, representing the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, spoke of “folks that struggled” with the hearings’ webinar format, asserted that there are people who are more comfortable speaking in person, and claimed that, as a result, “There are some underrepresented sectors” in the comments received by the Management Board. Tom Fote, the Governor’s Appointee from New Jersey, made similar remarks, saying that while those who spoke at the webinar/hearings had strong feelings, people who felt differently might not have spoken. He also noted that those commenting on the PID appeared to trend younger than those who usually speak at in-person hearings, and surmised that by holding the hearings online, the Management Board may have deterred some people from speaking.

However, neither Mr. Gary nor Mr. Fote tried to explain why those uncomfortable with the webinar format couldn’t have submitted their comments in writing, although perhaps it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The 3,000 written comments received by the Management Board far outnumbered the 177 comments provided at the webinars, but whether stakeholders commented in writing or at the hearings, nearly all strongly supported striped bass conservation.

Apparently recognizing that stakeholder comment, as well as the opinions of most of the Management Board, was stacked against his position, Michael Luisi, a Maryland fishery manager, attempted to delay meaningful action, saying that “I would prefer at this time, based on the comment, that we think more about consequences to the commercial, recreational, and for-hire fisheries,” and recommended that none of the PID’s issues be removed from consideration in the draft Amendment 7.

His gambit failed. The majority of the Management Board knew that the overwhelming majority of public comment supported conservation, and they knew that the striped bass stock was facing a real threat. Michael Armstrong, a Massachusetts fishery manager, clearly addressed those issues, saying “As I read this document and what’s happening with the fishery, we have to be laser-focused on rebuilding [spawning stock biomass].”

The Voting Begins

The PID addressed nine separate issues and also provided an opportunity for stakeholders to raise other issues that the PID might have overlooked. Of those nine issues, four were particularly important: the overriding goals and objectives of the management plan, the biological reference points used to gauge the health of the striped bass stock, the triggers that would require management action if a threat to the stock emerged, and the time within which a depleted stock must be rebuilt.

The goals and objectives, at least in theory, dictated what provisions ought to be included in the rest of the management plan. The current management goal is “To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fishery management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock; and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.”

The objectives supporting such goal include maintaining female spawning stock biomass at or above the biomass target, keeping fishing mortality low enough to “maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long-term abundance,” and maintaining a significant number of older, larger fish in the population; a number of other, largely administrative objectives were also included.

Those goals and objectives, if achieved, would lead to a healthy and resilient striped bass population. Over 98% of those commenting asked that they not be changed. The Management Board, by a vote of 10 to 6, agreed that change would not be addressed in the draft Amendment 7.

A motion to remove any consideration of new biological reference points, used to gauge the health of the stock, from Amendment 7 faced a somewhat longer debate. The biomass and fishing mortality reference points currently used are so-called “empirical” reference points, that are derived from observation, and not calculated by a population model. They’re based on the female spawning stock biomass in 1995, when the striped bass stock had just recovered from an earlier collapse, and was deemed to be in good health.

Some Management Board members objected that the biomass target was too high, and was too difficult to achieve. Another argued that the Management Board shouldn’t preclude the possibility that a model-based reference points could still be derived in time to include them in Amendment 7. But of all the issues in the PID, biological reference points received the most public comment and the greatest support, with well over 99% of the comments opposing any change.

Again, that stakeholder comment was heard. Maine fishery manager Megan Ware noted that the public wanted the Commission to “strengthen its commitment” to effective striped bass management, and that it expected the Management Board to drop fishing mortality to achieve the spawning stock biomass target, and not reduce the spawning stock biomass target to accord with the current fishing mortality level. She disagreed with comments that the public didn’t understand the consequences of maintaining the current reference points, saying that she found stakeholders to be “very well informed.”

The motion on reference points passed, again by 10 to 6.

Management triggers didn’t fare quite as well.

Capt. John McMurray, Legislative Proxy from New York, moved that the draft Amendment 7 only consider changes to the management trigger that addresses poor spawning success. Currently, that trigger suggests management action only when the juvenile abundance index for any of the major spawning areas (Hudson River, Delaware River, Chesapeake Bay, Roanoke River/Albemarle Sound) falls below its 25th percentile for three consecutive years. Capt. McMurray argued that was an ineffective standard, and that managers should be required to act before spawning success deteriorates that far.

His motion was met with some support, but many Management Board members also wanted to revisit the triggers that called for action when spawning stock biomass fell too low or fishing mortality rose too high, and in the end, on a 13 to 2 vote, agreed to do so.

That doesn’t mean that the management triggers will, in the end, be changed, but it does mean that changes will be considered in the draft Amendment 7. The danger is that the Management Board will decide to adopt management triggers that allow delay, perhaps requiring multiple years of excessive fishing mortality or inadequate biomass, before action needs to be taken. It’s also possible that more effective triggers will be adopted. But this is one issue that stakeholders will need to watch closely when the draft Amendment 7 is released in August.

A Pleasant Surprise

Fortunately, the requirement to rebuild an overfished stock within 10 years will not be changed. In moving to remove the issue from consideration in the draft Amendment, Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fishery manager, noted that the Management Board had received a “clear signal from the public.” He observed that there was no support at all for lengthening the rebuilding time, although some stakeholders believed that such time should be shortened. He also said that 10 years was an appropriate rebuilding timeline, given the striped bass’ biology.

In supporting Dr. Davis’ comments, Capt. McMurray stated that “We made a promise to the public with Amendment 6 [which created the 10-year rebuilding deadline], and I think we should keep it.”

And that’s when the biggest surprise of the meeting occurred. Ms. Ware from Maine rose to amend Dr. Davis’ motion, which would “include an option for measures to protect the 2015 year class in Amendment 7,” even though such measures were not specifically included in the PID. In doing so, she cited strong stakeholder concerns, generally poor spawning success over the past five years, and the fact that the relatively abundant 2015 year class would probably draw more anglers into the fishery.

Ms. Ware’s amendment drew immediate support, although some noted that it was somewhat unusual to amend a motion to remove an issue from consideration by adding language that would add a different issue to the draft Amendment 7. It also drew some opposition, with both Mr. Fote of New Jersey and Mr. Luisi of Maryland speaking against it. Their objections were quickly rebutted by Massachusetts’ Michael Armstrong, who observed that outside of the 2015 year class, and a “not bad” 2014 year class in the Hudson River, there were few fish available to rebuild the stock. He said that “We have to start doing Draconian things to get this stock back.”

The majority of the Management Board agreed, and the motion to retain the current rebuilding period, while investigating measures to protect the 2015s, passed by a wide margin, with only New Jersey opposed.

Other Issues Considered

Other subsidiary issues were also considered. Of those, the most important was probably conservation equivalency, the policy which allows states to adopt management measures that differ from those preferred by the Management Board, so long as they provide the same conservation benefit.

While that sounds good in theory, in practice, states typically try to use conservation equivalency to escape their full share of the conservation burden, and provide their fishermen with a larger harvest than they would enjoy under the Management Board’s preferred rules. Such use tends to degrade the effectiveness of management actions, and make them less likely to succeed.

Stakeholder comment was critical of the way conservation equivalency had historically been used, as were the comments of many Management Board members. New Hampshire’s Dennis Abbott said that the motion to include conservation equivalency options in the draft Amendment 7 was “the first item that gets to the meat and potatoes of why we have Amendment 7 and why we’re not reaching our objectives.” He called for “substantial changes” in how conservation equivalency was used.

So did the Management Board which, in a near-unanimous vote that saw only New Jersey opposed, agreed to consider changes to its conservation equivalency policy in the draft Amendment.

In other actions, the Management Board agreed to consider additional ways to reduce recreational release mortality in the draft Amendment, and to omit any consideration of regional approaches to striped bass management, recreational accountability measures, and changes to the commercial allocation, although the latter issue will be examined in a separate management action.

The final result was a draft Amendment 7 that should have real potential to improve the way striped bass are managed. Virtually all of the issues included in the PID, that might have posed a threat to the health of the stock, have been removed; only the reconsideration of management triggers provides any cause for any concern.

On the other hand, the stock can only benefit if measures to protect the 2015 year class, reform the way conservation equivalency is used, and reduce recreational release mortality become a part of the final Amendment 7.

There is still a long way to go before that amendment is completed. But this time, it appears that the Management Board is on the right path.

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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