Photo by Kyle Schaefer
On the afternoon of Wednesday, January 26, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) reviewed and amended its Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Draft Amendment), and approved such Draft Amendment for public comment.
In 2003, when Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was adopted, the striped bass stock was healthy. Female spawning stock biomass was at the highest level ever recorded, overfishing was not taking place, and successful spawns were regularly replenishing the striped bass population. Today, the striped bass stock is overfished, and spawning success in Maryland, the single most important spawning ground, has been far below average for the past three years.
Both fishery managers and stakeholders are depending on the new amendment (Amendment 7) to turn things around.
The Management Board’s final actions on the Draft Amendment, and the Draft Amendment’s contents, are described below.
Management triggers determine when the Management Board must respond to threats to the striped bass stock, and were the first issue discussed at the January meeting. The five current triggers are:
- If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded in any year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.
- If the Management Board determines that 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 ten years].
- If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.
- 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 ten years].
- The Management Board shall annually examine trends in all required Juvenile Abundance Index surveys. If any JAI shows recruitment failure (i.e., JAI lower than 75% of all other values in the dataset) for three consecutive years, then the Management Board will review the cause of the recruitment failure (e.g., fishing mortality, environmental conditions, disease, etc.) and determine the appropriate management action. The Management Board shall be the final arbiter in all management decisions.
Some Management Board members have complained that fishing mortality triggers 1 and 3 could cause fishery management measures to change too often, even though, in practice, such triggers have only been tripped twice since 2003, once after the 2013 benchmark stock assessment found that fishing mortality had risen above target as spawning stock biomass declined, and again after the 2018 benchmark stock assessment found the stock to be both overfished and experiencing overfishing. They asked that the Draft Amendment include options that would not necessarily require immediate management action, should fishing mortality rise too high.
The most senseless of those options would extend the time in which fishing mortality must be restored to the target level to two years, rather than one. There is little apparent need for such change since, after fishing mortality triggers were in 2015 and 2020, the Management Board handily lowered fishing mortality not only to, but below, target within a single year. Yet such option remains in the Draft Amendment.
Other options would allow excessive fishing mortality to occur for more than one year before management action is taken. However, the Management Board found that one such option, which would have allowed managers to refrain from ending overfishing until the average fishing mortality rate for three consecutive years exceeded the fishing mortality threshold, provided for too much delay, and removed it from the Draft Amendment on a 10 to 6 vote.
Another option, which remains in the Draft Amendment, proposes deleting Trigger 3 altogether. Removing such trigger from Amendment 7 would render the fishing mortality target meaningless, as the Management Board would no longer have to respond until overfishing had already occurred.
In that context, it’s important to note that the Management Board always has the power to take preemptive action, even if no management trigger is tripped. However, when Capt. John McMurray, New York’s legislative proxy, asked whether it had done so, even once, since Amendment 6 was adopted in 2003, ASMFC staff was unable to cite a single instance when it had taken such preemptive action.
The Draft Amendment also contains options that would, if adopted, modify or eliminate spawning stock biomass triggers 2 and 4.
One such option would improve the ASMFC’s striped bass management program, by requiring the Management Board to initiate a rebuilding plan within two years after either biomass trigger was tripped. No such requirement exists today, which explains why, even though Trigger 2 was tripped in May 2019, work on the required rebuilding plan has not yet begun.
More problematic options propose to completely eliminate one, but not both, of the biomass triggers. The removal of Trigger 4, like the proposed removal of Trigger 3, would remove the Management Board’s incentive to avert a critical decline in striped bass abundance, as it would only be required to act if the stock becomes overfished. The removal of Trigger 2 might appear safer since, if a rebuilding plain is initiated pursuant to Trigger 4, Trigger 2 should never be tripped. However, Trigger 2 provided an important backstop when the stock was declared overfished in 2019, after Michael Waine, the ASMFC’s former fishery management plan coordinator for striped bass, advised the Management Board not to initiate a rebuilding plan after Trigger 4 was tripped by the 2013 stock assessment. It, too, should remain in Amendment 7.
The good news is that the Draft Amendment’s options to amend recruitment Trigger 5 would both benefit the striped bass. The current Trigger 5 was only tripped once since 2003, even though juvenile abundance indices in several watersheds revealed multiple episodes of low spawning success. Either of the Draft Amendment’s recruitment trigger options would increase Trigger 5’s sensitivity, making it more likely to compel management action during periods of low recruitment.
Unfortunately, the prospect of more sensitive triggers led to some concern that remedial action would have to be taken too often, leading to repeated changes in state regulations. Thus, the Draft Amendment offers five different options that would allow the Management Board to defer management action, even when triggers are tripped, either because it had recently acted in response to a different trigger or because, despite a trigger being tripped, the stock otherwise appeared to be in relatively good health.
Rebuilding the Spawning Stock
Because biomass Trigger 2 was tripped in 2019, the Management Board must develop a plan to rebuild the spawning stock to its target level by 2029. Any such rebuilding plan would typically assume that striped bass recruitment during the rebuilding period would be about the same as the average recruitment throughout the history of the stock. The Draft Amendment includes a rebuilding option that reflects such standard practice.
However, because recruitment has been unusually low in recent years, the Draft Amendment also includes a rebuilding option that would assume low recruitment during the rebuilding period, a more conservative and, some believe, a more reasonable approach given the recent history of the striped bass stock.
Whichever recruitment option is ultimately chosen, work on the rebuilding plan will not begin until after a stock assessment update is released in October 2022. If such update reveals that current management measures are inadequate to rebuild the stock by the 2029 deadline, then the Management Board would normally begin work on a new addendum to Amendment 7, which would contain the required rebuilding measures, and would probably not go into effect until 2024.
That would only give the Management Board five years to rebuild the overfished stock.
Thus, Michael Armstrong, the Massachusetts fishery manager, made what was undoubtedly the most important motion of the January 2022 meeting. He moved
to add an option to Section 4.4: Rebuilding Plan that considers an alternative process for responding to the 2022 stock assessment, as follows: If the 2022 stock assessment indicates that the Amendment 7 measures have less than a 50% probability of rebuilding the stock by 2029 (as calculated using the recruitment assumption specified in Amendment 7) and if the stock assessment indicates at least a 5% reduction in removals is needed to achieve [the fishing mortality level needed to rebuild the stock] the Board may adjust measures to achieve [such reduced level of fishing mortality] via Board action.
Jason McNamee, the Rhode Island fishery manager, seconded the motion, which then passed by consensus, with not a single state delegation opposed.
So a new option was added to the Draft Amendment which, if it is included in Amendment 7, would allow the Management Board to adopt whatever measures are needed to rebuild the striped bass spawning stock biomass by the 2029 deadline, without first reaching out for public comment, in order to accelerate the rebuilding process.
Mr. Armstrong’s motion undoubtedly pleased the thousands of stakeholders who have called on the Management Board to take prompt action to rebuild the stock.
It also seemed to evidence widespread expectations that the 2022 assessment update will not bring good news. The fact that not a single state delegation, and only one Management Board member, expressed any opposition to the motion appeared to be a tacit acknowledgement, on the part of the Management Board, that prompt action to rebuild the spawning stock will be needed.
The Draft Amendment, as presented to the Management Board, also included options to protect the larger 2015, 2017, and 2018 year classes, in order to jumpstart rebuilding. However, after analyzing a number of different combinations of size and bag limits, the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee determined that protecting such year classes would not speed up the rebuilding process. It advised that the only reliable way to increase the speed at which striped bass rebuild is to decrease the number of bass being removed from the population.
Pursuant to a recommendation of the Plan Development Team, the proposals to protect specific year classes were removed from the Draft Amendment, with only Maine dissenting from that decision.
Reducing Recreational Release Mortality
Recreational fishermen are responsible for about 90% of all striped bass fishing mortality, and nearly 50% of such fishing mortality has been attributed to bass that die after being released by anglers. While biologists estimate that only 9% of released bass fail to survive, anglers typically release over 30 million striped bass every year, and 9% of 30 million remains a large number, large enough to convince some fishery managers that reducing recreational release mortality should be a part of the striped bass management plan.
The Draft Amendment contains options that would, if ultimately included in Amendment 7, address recreational release mortality by requiring states to prohibit not only harvesting, but also catch-and-release fishing for, striped bass for at least two weeks, at a time when striped bass fishing effort would otherwise be high. Other options would prohibit such fishing for at least two weeks in designated striped bass spawning areas, and prohibit the use of gaffs or similar lethal devices to land striped bass.
The Management Board spent little time discussing such issues at the January meeting; however, the ASMFC’s Law Enforcement Committee expressed concerns about the enforceability of measures prohibiting catch-and-release.
Management Plan Equivalency
By the time the final issue, management plan equivalency, was put before the Management Board, the meeting was already running late. That was unfortunate, because it is arguably the most controversial issue included in the Draft Amendment, and deserved a longer discussion.
Management plan equivalency is usually referred to as “conservation equivalency,” which is defined in the ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Program Charter (Charter) as “Actions taken by a state which differ from the specific requirements of the [fishery management plan], but which achieve the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management. For example, various combinations of size limits, gear restrictions, and season length can be demonstrated to achieve the same targeted level of fishing mortality. The appropriate Management Board/Section will determine conservation equivalency.”
Unfortunately, as applied by the Management Board, conservation equivalency has often allowed states to adopt management measures that, far from achieving “the same quantified level of conservation” and “the same targeted level of fishing mortality” as the approved coastwide measures, were significantly less effective, and threatened to undercut the goals of the management plan.
That was clearly the case in 2020, when supposedly equivalent management measures, adopted by New Jersey and Maryland, reduced the probability that Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass would succeed in reducing fishing mortality from an already marginal 50% to merely 42%, rendering such addendum more likely to fail than succeed.
Such abuses caused the Management Board to reconsider how conservation equivalency is used. The Draft Amendment includes options that would prohibit states from adopting conservation equivalent proposals when the stock is overfished, or when overfishing is occurring. Because state-level recreational catch and landings data is less accurate than coastwide estimates, other options would set a minimum data quality level for conservation equivalency proposals, and require conservation-equivalent management measures to be somewhat more conservative than the coastwide measures, in order to allow for the less precise state-level data.
All such options will remain in the Draft Amendment.
Unfortunately, the Draft Amendment will also retain an option that would allow states to continue to abuse the conservation equivalency process, and adopt management measures less effective than the coastwide measures adopted by the Management Board.
The Management Board expects to make Draft Amendment available, on the ASMFC website, on or before February 4. That will begin the public comment process. Public hearings, which may be in a webinar format, will be held in most states during the month of March; the dates and, if held in-person, the places for such hearings will also be published on the ASMFC website once they are set.
The comment period will end on April 15.
Amendment 6 has endured for nearly two decades, and there is no reason to believe that Amendment 7 won’t last as long. Thus, it is important that the Management Board get Amendment 7 right. Stakeholder input is an important part of that process, so anyone concerned about the bass’ future ought to come out an make their views known. The Management Board has made it clear that they will be listening.