Newest Amendment to ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Plan Emphasizes Conservation

Striped bass

On Wednesday, March 4, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) completed its work on Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Amendment 7). Amendment 7 maintains the conservation measures adopted in earlier amendments, while embracing additional improvements to striped bass management that promote conservation and should help to ensure the success of future management actions.

Such a favorable outcome didn’t seem likely three years ago, when Amendment 7 was first proposed. Then, much of the impetus behind initiating a new amendment came from Management Board members who sought to change the reference points used to gauge the health of the striped bass stock, in order to lower target abundance while increasing landings. Such sentiments remained strong a year later, when a Work Group created by the Management Board not only recommended reviewing the reference points, but suggested that any new amendment be built around the “themes” of management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency.

Rebuilding the overfished striped bass stock did not appear to be among the Work Group’s recommended priorities.

Stakeholders got their first opportunity to comment on the proposed Amendment 7 after the Public Information Document for Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was released in February 2021. They made it clear that they were far less concerned with bureaucratic concerns such as stability and flexibility than they were with seeing striped bass managed for abundance rather than for yield; they also made it clear that they were very unhappy with the Management Board’s failure to make any effort to initiate a rebuilding plan for the overfished stock.

The Management Board heeded the stakeholders’ message, and proposed no changes to either the reference points or to the goals and objectives of the management plan. Instead, the draft of Amendment 7 that was finally released for public review addressed only four issues. Those included proposed modifications to the so-called “management triggers” that determine when managers must respond to potential threats to the stock, strategies to reduce recreational release mortality, rebuilding the overfished stock, and modifications to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s use of “conservation equivalency,” a management tool which allows states to adopt regulations different from the standard coastwide measures adopted by the Management Board, provided that such state measures achieve “the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management.”

Even limited to those four issues, the draft Amendment 7 was nearly 150 pages long and densely worded, facts that led to many stakeholder complaints. Nonetheless, oral and written comments were submitted by about 5,000 individuals and organizations. About 99% of those comments supported strong and effective striped bass conservation.

Management triggers that prevent delay

In 2003, the Management Board adopted Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Amendment 6), which included five triggers for management action. Two of such triggers tripped if fishing mortality rose too high, two tripped if female spawning stock biomass fell too low, and one tripped if an extended period of below-average spawns led to recruitment failure.

In the nearly twenty years since Amendment 6 was adopted, the fishing mortality triggers were tripped twice, in 2014 and 2019, causing the Management Board to adopt the management measures needed to reduce fishing mortality back to its target level within one year.

The biomass triggers were also tripped in 2014 and 2019. In 2014, the Management Board, on the advice of then-Fishery Management Plan Coordinator Michael Waine, ignored its clear obligation to initiate a 10-year rebuilding plan. When the stock was declared overfished in 2019, the Management Board delayed again, initiating the Amendment 7 process instead of a rebuilding plan. The Management Board has since committed to drafting a rebuilding plan once a stock assessment update is completed in October 2022; however, past delays will make it more difficult to achieve rebuilding by the 2029 deadline.

The recruitment trigger was tripped only once since 2003. That happened in 2020, after three consecutive years on very low recruitment in North Carolina’s Albemarle and Roanoke rivers. Low recruitment in Chesapeake Bay, which contributed to the stock becoming overfished, never tripped the trigger, despite recent Maryland Juvenile Abundance Indices that were every bit as low as they were during the stock collapse of the 1980s.

As part of the drive for management stability and flexibility, some Management Board members sought to inject delay into the fishing mortality triggers. They proposed allowing two years, rather than one, to reduce fishing mortality back to its target level after a trigger was tripped, and would have required a two-year average of fishing mortality to exceed the overfishing threshold, rather than just a single year of overfishing, before management action was needed.

Stakeholder comment overwhelmingly opposed such delay, and the Management Board opted against both proposals. To speed up its response to the spawning stock biomass triggers, the Management Board also approved a new proposal that requires it to adopt a ten-year rebuilding plan within two years after such a trigger is tripped.

A more sensitive recruitment trigger was also adopted, which would trip if, in three consecutive years, the juvenile abundance index for four “core” spawning areas, the Hudson River, the Delaware River, and the Maryland and Virginia portions of Chesapeake Bay, fell below 75% of the values for such index during the period 1992-2006. If such trigger had been part of Amendment 6, it would have tripped three times since 2003. Should the new recruitment trigger be tripped, Amendment 7 requires the Management Board to adopt lower, interim fishing mortality reference points, that reflect the low recruitment, and then apply the fishing mortality triggers to such reference points to determine whether action must be taken.

A trigger that only trips three times in nearly 20 years does not seem unreasonably sensitive, but the Management Board was nonetheless concerned that such trigger might trip too often, and possibly interfere with a management measure already being considered. Thus, the Management Board included language in Amendment 7 that allows it to defer action on any new management measure, if it is already working on another management action.

Such provision was contrary to strong stakeholder sentiment; about 99% of all comments opposed allowing the Management Board to defer action when a trigger was tripped, regardless of the circumstances.

Closed seasons rejected

About half of all striped bass fishing mortality can be attributed to fish that die after being released by anglers. In hopes of reducing such release mortality, the draft Amendment 7 included three proposals that would have imposed closed seasons that would, in theory, reduce recreational fishing effort.

One such proposal would have required each state to impose a closed season at least two weeks in length, during which even catch-and-release striped bass fishing would be prohibited, during a period when anglers in such state make most of their directed striped bass trips. The Management Board was unable to estimate the fishing mortality reduction generated by any such season, while the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Law Enforcement Committee stated that any no-targeting closure was completely unenforceable, as there is no way to prove that an angler was targeting striped bass and not some other species. Such considerations led the Management Board to vote against including any such closure in Amendment 7.

The Management Board also failed to approve two other proposals intended to reduce angling effort. One such proposal would have prohibited all striped bass harvest in spawning areas between January 1 and April 30; the other would have imposed a two-week no-targeting closure in such areas.

The only release mortality-related measures approved by the Management Board included a measure that banned the use of gaffs to land striped bass, and another requiring the release of any striped bass caught on bait and traditional J-hooks, instead of the circle hooks already required by the management plan. It is not clear how much either measure will reduce recreational release mortality.

Steps toward rebuilding the stock

While the Management Board intends to initiate a plan to rebuild the overfished stock in October 2022, it is not clear what form such plan might take. However, Amendment 7 contains two provisions that makes it more likely that any such plan will succeed.

The first recognizes that the recruitment of young striped bass into the population has been lower than average in recent years. It requires that, in preparing the upcoming rebuilding plan, scientists must assume that recruitment will remain at the low levels experienced between 2007 and 2020. By incorporating a low recruitment assumption into the rebuilding plan, such scientists can better ensure that the stock will be fully rebuilt by 2029.

Because 2029 isn’t too far away, the Management Board also approved a provision which allows it to fast-track the rebuilding plan, and not go through the public hearing process that is typically required before changes to the management plan may be adopted. Doing so will allow the rebuilding plan to go into effect early in 2023 while, if the normal procedures were followed, rebuilding would not begin until 2024.

Conservation equivalency reform

Conservation equivalency is one of the most controversial aspects of striped bass management, and was certainly one of the most hotly debated topics in Amendment 7. It is defined in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’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 species under management.”

As initially conceived, conservation equivalency would allow states to tailor fishery management measures to the particular needs of their local fisheries, while still providing needed protections to the managed stock.

In practice, conservation equivalency has been abused by states seeking to escape their full share of the conservation burden. In the most recent example, the management actions originally included in Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (Addendum VI) had a 50% probability of reducing fishing mortality to or below the target level; however, after a few states, most notably Maryland and New Jersey, adopted conservation equivalent management measures, the probability of success fell to a mere 42%, rendering Addendum VI more likely to fail than succeed.

Thus, a large percentage of stakeholders and Management Board members wanted to see conservation equivalency reforms included in Amendment 7. They got their wish. The Management Board voted to prohibit the use of conservation equivalency at any time when the stock was overfished. Because state-level recreational fishing data is less precise than coastwide data, the Management Board also adopted a precision standard that prohibited the use of any recreational data with a percent standard error (PSE) greater than 40 to calculate conservation equivalent measures.

Stakeholders wanted to prohibit the use of data with a PSE greater than 30, and a number of Management Board members, including Massachusetts’ Dr. Michael Armstrong, who made the relevant motion, agreed that, based on purely scientific considerations, a maximum PSE of 30 would have been the right way to go. The Management Board ultimately settled on the less precise standard out of fear that, particularly in smaller states, more precise data might not be available.

In an effort to address the uncertainty inherent in state level data, the Management Board also decided that states adopting conservation equivalent measures would be subject to an “uncertainty buffer,” which would lead to slightly more restrictive management measures. Such buffer would impose a 10% penalty on all conservation equivalent regulations based on data with a PSE of 30 or less (i.e., if the coastwide rules would have required a state to achieve a 20% reduction, its conservation equivalent measures would have to achieve a reduction of 22%), which would increase to a 25% penalty for conservation equivalent measures with a PSE above 30 but no higher than 40.

But the single most important reform was the Management Board’s decision to define “conservation equivalency” in Amendment 7 the same way that it is defined in the Charter: Any conservation equivalency measures adopted by a state must have the same conservation impact, in that state, as the standard, coastwide measures. While that result is seemingly mandated by the Charter, the Management Board had previously chosen to ignore the Charter’s language, and permitted states to adopt allegedly conservation equivalent measures which only achieved the coastwide, and not the state-specific, reduction.

The Management Board’s decision to allow states such as New Jersey to only achieve Addendum VI’s 18% coastwide reduction, instead of the much larger reduction imposed on such states by the coastwide rules, is the sole reason why Addendum VI had such a low probability of success. By prohibiting such abuses of conservation equivalency, Amendment 7 will make it more likely that future Management Board actions will succeed.

What comes next?

Once its discussions of conservation equivalency concluded, the Management Board voted to approve its final version of Amendment 7. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Interstate Fishery Management Policy Board approved the completed amendment on May 5.

Most of Amendment 7 became effective upon such approval, although the two equipment-related provisions, which ban the use of gaffs and require the release of all bass caught on bait and J-hooks, don’t need to be adopted by the states until January 1, 2023. The two rebuilding-related provisions are technically in effect right now, but will have no practical impact on striped bass management until the Management Board begins work on a rebuilding plan.

Still, the fact that Amendment 7 has been completed does not mean that the striped bass debate is over. Some issues are likely to resurface soon.

If the management measures needed to rebuild the stock by 2029 prove extremely severe, it is far from unlikely that some Management Board members will try to argue for a longer rebuilding period, despite the clear language of the management plan.

And given some comments made at the last Management Board meeting, it is also likely that some Management Board members will again argue that the current biomass target and threshold are unrealistically high, and will try to reduce them, at some not-too-distant point in the future. When that question arose on May 4, Capt. John McMurray, New York’s Legislative Proxy, asked Dr. Katie Drew, who leads the striped bass stock assessment team, whether it is possible to rebuild the stock all the way to the current biomass target. Dr. Drew answered the question in the affirmative, based on the current state of the science, but her answer won’t prevent others from asking the question again.

Even so, that debate lies in the future. Contrary to early expectations, Amendment 7 represents a step forward for striped bass conservation, and sets a firm foundation for the upcoming rebuilding plan.

Right now, stakeholders should thank the Management Board for a job well done.

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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