Top photo by John McMurray
On the morning of March 30, 2023, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee (Technical Committee) held a meeting, where it agreed that the currently overfished striped bass population will probably not be rebuilt by the 2029 rebuilding deadline.
The news was not a surprise. Marine Recreational Information Program data had already let fishery managers know that striped bass landings in 2022 were roughly twice what they were in 2021, but it was still disheartening to anglers who had long advocated for better striped bass conservation. Just last November, a stock assessment update found that, so long as fishing mortality remained at the 2021 level (F=0.14), there was a 78.6 percent probability that the striped bass stock would fully rebuild by 2029.
The 2029 rebuilding deadline was set pursuant to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, and carried forward after the new Amendment 7 to the management plan was adopted in May 2022. The plan requires that “If female [spawning stock biomass] falls below the threshold, the striped bass management program must be adjusted to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within an established timeframe [not to exceed 10 years]. [emphasis added]”
That requirement was tripped in 2019, after the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) accepted a benchmark stock assessment that found striped bass to be both overfished and subject to overfishing. However, the Management Board didn’t initiate rebuilding immediately. Instead, it first took the time to draft and debate Amendment 7; when that was finally done, the time for rebuilding had already shrunk from ten to just seven years.
Thus, the assessment update’s conclusion that the stock would probably rebuild, even if no additional management measures were taken, came as welcome news. Unfortunately, last year’s big spike in recreational landings has completely changed that outlook.
Removals of striped bass from the coastwide population increased by 33.5% in 2022, compared to removals in 2021. The 2022 fishing mortality rate was 0.1873, just about halfway between the fishing mortality target of 0.1679 and the fishing mortality threshold, which defines overfishing, of 0.2013.
Although fishing mortality has risen above the target, overfishing is not yet occurring.
Still, fishing mortality has risen high enough to frustrate the rebuilding process. If the fishing mortality rate does not change, the female spawning stock biomass will probably rise above the threshold, and will no longer be deemed overfished, at some point during 2023, but that recovery is expected to stall somewhere short of the spawning stock biomass target. Instead, striped bass abundance will probably level out at a point about midway between target and threshold.
By 2029 female spawning stock biomass, far from being rebuilt, will probably be shrinking slightly, due to the unusually low number of young bass that have recruited into the population since 2018.
How unlikely is it that the striped bass stock will rebuild?
If the Management Board chose to reject Addendum I to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (Addendum I) at its May 2023 meeting, and so continues its ban on the interstate transfer of unused commercial striped bass quota, and if the fishing mortality rate was no higher than 0.1837 (the average of the fishing mortality rates during the years 2019, 2021, and 2022), there would be a mere 14.6% probability that the stock will rebuild by 2029. There would also be a 93.9% chance that the stock would not be overfished in that year.
That’s the best-case projection.
The worst case, which assumes that the fishing mortality rate would remain at its 2022 level, that the Management Board will approve Addendum I and that the entire coastal commercial quota will be caught, gives the stock only a 3.4% chance of rebuilding by 2029. Under such circumstances, the probability of the stock not being overfished in 2029 drops to just 75.8%.
The Technical Committee considered a number of different scenarios, involving different levels of fishing mortality and commercial quota utilization, at its March 30 meeting, and decided to present the Management Board with three different projections for consideration at its May meeting. All will assume that recreational fishing mortality will equal the three-year (2019, 2021, 2022) average.
One projection will present the best-case scenario. Another, which assumes that Addendum I will be approved and the entire commercial quota caught, yields a fishing mortality rate of 0.1992. The third scenario assumes that all state commercial quota, with the exception of New Jersey’s, which was reallocated to the recreational fishery, will be caught, and results in a slightly lower fishing mortality rate of 0.1987.
The fishing mortality rates of the latter two scenarios come perilously close to the fishing mortality threshold of 0.2013. Since any such projection includes some degree of uncertainty, it is possible that, when such uncertainty is considered, either one might lead to overfishing.
Now, anglers must wait until the Management Board meets on May 2nd, to find out what the Management Board chooses to do with the Technical Committee’s projections. It has the authority to take remedial action, but it is not required to do anything at all. That’s because the projections provided by the Technical Committee do not constitute advice provided by a formal stock assessment or assessment update.
Yet, even if the projections were derived from an assessment, they wouldn’t have tripped any of the triggers that require management action, the most pertinent of which reads, “If [the fishing mortality rate] exceeds the target for two consecutive years and the female [spawning stock biomass] falls below the target in either of those years, the striped bass management program must be adjusted to reduce [fishing mortality] to a level that is at or below the target within one year. [emphasis added]”
Since the fishing mortality rate has so far only risen above target in a single year, 2022, action is not yet required. If the Management Board chooses to act, it will only be because it decides to act prudently, to head off a problem, rather than waiting until a crisis has already occurred.
Will it choose to do so?
If history is any guide, the answer is, unfortunately, no. When faced with such a choice in the past, the Management Board has always eschewed precautionary action. Perhaps the best example occurred at its November 2011 meeting when, after being advised by a recent stock assessment update that “Abundance and exploitable biomass of ages 8+ [striped bass] are expected to decline regardless of the recruitment scenario,” and that “Female [spawning stock biomass] will fall slightly below threshold by 2017,” meaning that the stock would become overfished by that time, the Management Board chose to do nothing.
Its mood was well expressed in the comments of Pat Augustine, then the Governor’s Appointee from New York, who observed, “[there are] the 688 pages of documentation that say that the stock is pretty doggone healthy—that we’re looking at a sustainable yield and at the same time looking at sustainable spawning stock biomass to carry it through a minimum of 2016, minimum, unless there is a catastrophe and then that will be something else to worry about…We haven’t had a real spawning disaster to even trigger one of the triggers within the [fishery management plan], and we’re sitting here gnashing our teeth as to which way to go.”
The Management Board’s comments and actions during the Amendment 7 process provided reason to hope that it has become more responsive to the needs of the striped bass stock than it was a decade ago, but there is still no assurance that it will act in the face of 2022’s increased landings, even though the management plan requires it to rebuild the stock by 2029, and the latest projections make it clear that such rebuilding is very unlikely to happen unless fishing mortality is reduced.
That leaves the Management Board with three options.
It can begin a new management action at its May 2nd meeting, to reduce fishing mortality and put the stock back on track to rebuild by 2029. Given that the current fishing mortality rate isn’t too far above its target level, narrowing the slot limit, and so making it harder to catch a legal-sized fish, might be enough to set things right.
It can sit on its hands and do nothing until after the 2024 stock assessment update is completed. At that point, given the Technical Committee’s projections, it will probably take very substantial restrictions, almost certainly including substantial closed seasons, to accomplish rebuilding in the two or three years remaining to get the job done.
Or, it can renege on the commitment it made to the public, and not rebuild the stock at all. It can demonstrate that the language of the management plan, which requires the Management Board to rebuild the stock within ten years, is no more than words inked on paper, void of any binding legal or moral effect. As it makes its excuses for why the stock was not rebuilt by 2029, it can make up other excuses as to how the poor recruitment in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 will prevent rebuilding from occurring at any time in the foreseeable future as well.
Hopefully, that latter scenario will not occur.
Hopefully, the Management Board will act responsibly, with precaution, and with eyes sharply focused on the future health of the stock.
On May 2nd, we will know.