Top photo by John McMurray
Over the past few years, it was pretty clear to anyone who regularly fishes for Atlantic striped bass that the stock was declining badly, even before the latest benchmark stock assessment, released in 2019, confirmed what most serious fishermen already suspected—that the stock was overfished and suffering from overfishing.
What’s not so clear is whether the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) intends to rebuild the striped bass resource, and if it does, how long such rebuilding might take.
The ASMFC has a dismal record when it comes to rebuilding overfished stocks. Its “ASMFC Stock Status Overview,” last updated in June 2021, reveals that out of the 23 stocks managed solely by the ASMFC (it manages other stocks jointly with the National Marine Fisheries Service), 11 are currently overfished, and that it has allowed the only overfished stock that it ever successfully rebuilt, Atlantic striped bass, to become overfished once again.
It’s possible that the ASMFC’s record is even worse, for of the remaining 12 stocks that fall solely under its jurisdiction, the condition of 7—more than half—is “unknown.”
Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Amendment 6) contains provisions, deemed “management triggers,” that require rebuilding. Management Trigger 2 states that “If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [no more than 10 years].”
While that trigger addresses what the Management Board must do if the stock becomes overfished, a second trigger, Management Trigger 4, requires action when the stock isn’t yet overfished, but is nonetheless in decline. It says that “If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [no more than 10 years].”
The ASMFC isn’t governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which only applies to fisheries prosecuted in federal waters; even so, Management Trigger 2 is similar to Magnuson-Stevens’ requirements for rebuilding overfished stocks, while Management Trigger 4 is actually more prescriptive than the federal law.
Yet there is a big difference between federal fishery managers and managers at the ASMFC: When federal managers are required to rebuild an overfished stock, they do so, because they know that they will probably end up in court if they fail to act. At the ASMFC, managers know that their actions aren’t subject to judicial review, and that they face no legal consequences for ignoring the rebuilding requirements in a management plan.
And so they do just that.
In the case of striped bass, they did it twice in less than ten years.
The first time was in 2014, after a previous benchmark stock assessment, released in 2013, revealed that management trigger 4 had been tripped. The clear language of Amendment 6 allowed no room for discretion; it stated that the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) “must” adopt a 10-year rebuilding plan. Yet both the Management Board and ASMFC staff ignored that injunction, with Michael Waine, then the ASMFC’s Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for Atlantic Striped Bass advising the Management Board that
Management Trigger 2 [sic] in Amendment 6 says that you need to rebuild the [spawning stock biomass] back to its target over a specified timeframe that should not exceed ten years…The board is acting to reduce [fishing mortality]. Through that action we see the projections showing that [spawning stock biomass] will start increasing toward its target, but we’re uncomfortable with projecting out far enough to tell you when it will reach its target because the further on the projections we go the more uncertainty that is involved. Therefore, I think the trend is to get back towards the target, but we can’t tell you exactly how quickly that will happen.
Of course, as we now know, the stock didn’t rebuild at all. In the absence of a rebuilding plan, instead of the spawning stock biomass “increasing toward its target,” it continued to decline, until the stock became overfished.
Even then, the Management Board failed to heed the plain language of Amendment 6, and did not put a rebuilding plan in place. Instead, it adopted the ineffective Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan: 18% Reduction in Removals & Circle Hook Measures (Addendum VI), which had only a 42% probability of reducing fishing mortality to the target level.
Despite the unambiguous language of Management Trigger 2, it did not include a 10-year rebuilding plan.
Once that addendum was completed, the Management Board began work on a new Amendment 7 to its striped bass management plan. It decided that the “guiding themes” for such amendment would not be rebuilding the striped bass stock, as might be expected, nor managing such stock for its long-term health and sustainability. Instead, the Management Board envisioned a management plan built around the bureaucratic ideals of management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency, themes that would provide formal sanction for any Management Board failures to act in the face of declining abundance and increasing fishing mortality.
Fortunately, stakeholders insisted that the Management Board do better. They submitted over 3,000 individual comments, in which striped bass fishermen from every part of the coast were nearly unanimous in their demands that the striped bass be managed for abundance, not for yield, that the stock be rebuilt within 10 years, and that the current reference points—the levels of spawning stock biomass and fishing mortality used to gauge the health of the population—remain unchanged.
Recognizing that the public had spoken, the Management Board largely acceded to public demands, and agreed not to change the goals and objectives, reference points, or rebuilding timelines that were established in Amendment 6. But they did not agree with the public comments that supported the management triggers. Instead, it directed that changes to such management triggers be considered in the upcoming amendment.
Thus, the Plan Development Team (PDT) was told to develop new options for management triggers that might be included in the first draft of Amendment 7; some Management Board members emphasized the need for those proposals to promote management stability, flexibility, and consistency, despite the public rejection of such themes. Following the instructions that they were given, members of the PDT designed management trigger options that would allow the Management Board to delay remedial actions; instead of management changes being triggered by a single year of overfishing, a two or three or five year average of fishing mortality exceeding the threshold might be required before any effort to reduce landings began.
And when it came to overfishing, the most remarkable proposal of all was made: A PDT member suggested completely removing the trigger that required rebuilding an overfished stock.
That doesn’t mean that Management Trigger 2 will, in the end, be removed from the management plan. Before that could happen, the Management Board would first have to agree to include that suggestion in the initial draft of Amendment 7, which will be sent out for public comments.
Given the public’s overwhelming support for rebuilding the stock, expressed in the last round of comments, it’s hard to believe that a proposal to eliminate Management Trigger 2 would get any support at all. And we can only hope that the Management Board would yield to public sentiment on that issue.
It’s also difficult to reconcile the Management Board’s decision to maintain the 10-year rebuilding timeline with any proposal to eliminate the management trigger that requires rebuilding, for what use is a timeline when rebuilding need never occur?
Still, the fact that the ASMFC would even consider eliminating the requirement to rebuild an overfished striped bass stock is extremely troubling.
Striped bass, along with the rest of the fish that swim along the Atlantic coast, are natural resources that belong to every citizen of the United States. The ASMFC, as manager of such resources, has a duty to keep those resources healthy and sustainable in the long term. Part of that duty requires fish stocks to be rebuilt when they become depleted.
The ASMFC has not lived up to such obligations, even under current management plans. If it chooses to blatantly abandon its responsibility to rebuild an overfished striped bass population, it will be time for the public to intervene, and compel the ASMFC to get the job done.