ASMFC Acts to Rebuild Striped Bass

Striped Bass

On May 2, 2023, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Board) took two decisive actions that will hopefully ensure that the currently overfished striped bass stock will be fully rebuilt by 2029.

Six months ago, such actions didn’t appear to be needed. The ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee (Technical Committee) had determined that, at the end of 2021, striped bass were experiencing fishing mortality rate of only 0.14, which was slightly below the target rate of 0.17. If such low fishing mortality rate continued into the future, there was a 78.6% probability that the overfished stock would be fully rebuilt by 2029; even if the fishing mortality rate increased to the target level, there was a slightly better than even chance that the stock would rebuild by then.

However, some members of the Board were not optimistic. At its November 2022 meeting, Dr. Michael Armstrong, a Massachusetts fishery manager, warned, “this Board should be very cautious, because it doesn’t take a lot to change the course of the recovery, relatively minor change in the rise of [fishing mortality] that will put us back in the recovery period. That was my point. But I just want to emphasize we have to remain cautious as we move forward.”

Dr. Armstrong had reason to recommend caution. As he noted later that day,

I looked at the [Marine Recreational Information Program’s estimate of] landings, and they are up considerably this year. There is only one way we can react as a Board to low recruitment, and that’s maintaining an increasing [spawning stock biomass]. If in fact the retrospective [pattern in a recent stock assessment update, which suggested that fishing mortality was higher than the calculated value] is right and we are a little higher, and some of the other uncertainty and landings are up. We may in fact be at the [fishing mortality] threshold already, after this year…

But the main reason we are in this situation is we have never hit our target [fishing mortality], at least for a prolonged period of time. To prevent that we need to know what [fishing mortality] is. I would advocate for something…to kind of give us an idea within one year of where we’re at. That’s because mostly of the [four years of below-average] recruitment. We need to get [spawning stock biomass] up, which may not work, but that’s all we can do.

Spurred by such comments, the Board requested that, once all of the preliminary landings data for 2022 became available, the Technical Committee rerun its projections of future striped bass abundance, recalculate the probability of the stock being rebuilt by 2029, and present the results to the Board at its May 2023 meeting. Dr. Armstrong then noted, “If we find that landings are high, and projected to go above [the fishing mortality target], we could always cut landings without a quantitative assessment. I could sit here and make a motion and say, let’s cut harvest by 10 percent. I don’t know what it will do. It may cause people to go crazy. But I just think we’re in a spot that we need to react. That being said, stocks don’t collapse overnight. But with 4 years of poor recruitment, we’re approaching that point, in my mind.”

In April 2023, in response to the Board’s request, the Technical Committee released a report which found that, if fishing mortality remained at the 2022 level, the striped bass stock would probably not rebuild. Instead, spawning stock biomass would quickly rise above the biomass threshold, meaning that the stock would no longer be deemed overfished, but such recovery would soon stall well short of the biomass target. Then, sometime around 2027, the low numbers of young bass entering the population would cause the biomass to again decline.

A majority of the Board members found that scenario unacceptable. In the weeks immediately preceding their May meeting, they began talking among themselves about the right way to address the issue.

Dr. Justin Davis, Connecticut’s fishery manager, took the first step forward at the May meeting, making a motion that read

Move to initiate an Addendum to implement commercial and recreational measures for the ocean and Chesapeake Bay fisheries in 2024 that in aggregate are projected to achieve [the fishing mortality target rate] from the 2022 stock assessment update (F=0.17). Potential measures for the ocean recreational fishery should include modifications to the Addendum VI standard slot limit of 28-35″ and harvest season closures as a secondary non-preferred option. Potential measures for Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries, as well as ocean and Bay commercial fisheries should include maximum size limits.

Dr. Davis’ motion was seconded by Emerson Hasbrouck, the Governor’s Appointee from New York. Then a surprisingly short debate began.

There was no material opposition to the motion, although grammatical changes were made to clarify the language without changing its meaning. Dr. Michael Armstrong, a fishery manager from Massachusetts, proposed adding language that said, “The addendum will include an option for a provision enabling the Board to respond via Board action to the results of the upcoming stock assessment updates (e.g. currently scheduled for 2024, 2026) if the stock is not projected to rebuild by 2029 with a probability greater than or equal to 50%.”

Such amendment, which would allow the Board to react quickly if a threat to rebuilding arose, received unanimous approval. So did the final, amended motion. Even states which had resisted strong conservation measures in the past seemed to understand the need for the proposed Addendum II to Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (Addendum II).

Yet Addendum II will not become effective before January 1, 2024. Because the very large 2015 year class of striped bass will average about 31 ½ inches in length in 2023, and so fall right in the middle of the current 28- to 35-inch slot limit, there was a very good chance that 2023 recreational landings would equal, or very possibly exceed, 2022 landings. Such landings would make it even more difficult to rebuild the stock by 2029.

In order to return 2023 recreational landings to a more sustainable level, Dr. Armstrong next proposed that the Board take emergency action. Emergency actions are rare at the ASMFC, and are intentionally difficult to adopt; the affirmative vote of 2/3 of the voting Board members is required for passage. Nonetheless, Dr. Armstrong made a motion that read,

Move that the Striped Bass Board, by emergency action as outlined in the Commission’s ISFMP Charter, implement a 31″ maximum size to all existing recreational fisheries regulations where a higher (or no) maximum size applies, excluding the Chesapeake Bay trophy fisheries. All other recreational size limits, possession limits, seasons, gear restrictions, and spawning protections remain in place. Jurisdictions are required to implement compliant measures as soon as possible and no later than July 2, 2023.

That motion was seconded by David Borden, the Governor’s Appointee from Rhode Island, and ignited the most contentious discussions of the day.

Some Board members were concerned that the emergency action would make a significant change to existing management measures, without providing any opportunity for public input. Connecticut’s Dr. Davis expressed particular concern for the for-hire fishery, explaining that for-hire operators had already booked trips based on the 28- to 35-inch slot, and didn’t have any opportunity to comment on how the 31-inch cap on recreational landings might affect their businesses; on a personal note, he also stated that he had publicly assured the for-hire fleet that the recreational rules would not change in 2023, and he didn’t want to go back on his word.

Such concern led Dr. Davis to propose an amendment to the emergency motion, which stated “Measures for the for-hire sector will remain status quo. In the event the Board extends the emergency action past the initial 180-day effective period, the for-hire sector exemption from emergency measures cannot be extended.”

Dr. Davis assured the Board that he intended the exemption to be a short-term measure that merely gave the for-hire fleet a little time to adjust to the narrower slot limit. He made it clear that it wasn’t intended to open the door to different regulations for the for-hire fleet, and that he would oppose any efforts to include such “sector separation” in Addendum II.

The motion to exempt the for-hire fleet drew a mixed reaction from the Board. It was seconded by Eric Reid, Rhode Island’s legislative proxy, and supported by Emerson Hasbrouck, Dr. Jason McNamee, Rhode Island’s fishery manager, and William Hyatt, Connecticut’s Governor’s Appointee. However, it also gave rise to substantial opposition.

Tom Fote, the Governor’s Appointee from New Jersey, felt that the exemption was inequitable, exempting anglers on for-hire vessels from regulations that apply to anglers fishing from private boats and from shore, while also exempting for-hire businesses from the impact of measures that could also reduce tackle shops’ incomes.

Megan Ware, a Maine fisheries manager, stated that she was very uncomfortable creating a different set of management measures for the for-hire fleet through emergency action, noted that the recently adopted Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass emphasized regulatory consistency, and said that, “in the spirit of preserving equity,” she would oppose the amendment. Chris Batsavage, North Carolina’s fishery manager, stated that, while he sympathized with the issues facing the for-hire fleet, they did not provide adequate reason to exempt such fleet from the emergency action.

Dr. Armstrong, who made the original emergency motion, also opposed the amendment, largely because he didn’t feel that the emergency action would negatively impact for-hire operators. He noted that the emergency measure didn’t shorten the season or cut the bag limit, and felt that “any captain worth his salt” could still find legal-sized fish for his customers.

When the Board Chair called for a few public comments, such comments were also mixed. One charterboat captain endorsed the amendment, questioning the accuracy of the landings estimates provided by the Marine Recreational Information Program and citing the value of the purportedly more accurate data provided in the for-hire fleet’s vessel trip reports.

On the other hand, Michael Waine, representing the American Sportfishing Association, opposed the exemption, saying that “If we’re going to rebuild striped bass, we’re not going to be able to hand out conservation passes” that exempt some sectors from needed conservation measures. He noted that many new anglers are first introduced to the striped bass fishery on for-hire vessels, and that their exposure to conservation should begin on those vessels as well. Like New Jersey’s Fote, he observed that tackle shops could also see their businesses impacted by the emergency measure, but would not be shielded by any sort of exemption.

When the vote was called, only Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey supported the amendment, while ten jurisdictions opposed it and the two federal agencies that sit on the Board abstained.

After that, New Jersey made a last-ditch effort to dissuade the Board from taking emergency action, with Jeff Brust, a state fishery manager, arguing that no action should be taken before the Technical Committee had an opportunity to analyze what the impact of the 28- to 35-inch slot would be. Governor’s Appointee Fote, who had earlier commented that “People talk about emergency action; that’s a knee-jerk reaction,” argued that because Board members had short notice of the emergency motion, further action should be postponed until the August meeting.

His comment set the stage for the state’s legislative proxy, Adam Nowalsky, to make a formal motion to postpone further action on the emergency measure until the Board’s summer meeting. He justified such postponement by noting that there had been no notice of the emergency motion, and no opportunity for either public comment or Technical Committee input. Delaware’s legislative proxy, Craig Pugh, seconded the motion to postpone, supporting it with the somewhat ambiguous statement that the Board was “regulating to a superabundant supply of these fish.”

State Representative Sarah Peake, Massachusetts’ Legislative Appointee, countered the motion to postpone by observing, “They call it an ‘emergency’ for a reason,” and suggesting, “Let’s not kick the can down the road.”

Most of the Board agreed with her position, with 14 voting Board members opposing the motion, and only New Jersey and Delaware in support.

At that point, it was finally time to address the emergency motion itself. When the roll was called, 15 of the 16 voting members supported emergency action. Only New Jersey did not.

The public reaction to the Board’s actions has been generally positive.

Patrick Paquette, the government affairs officer of the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association, called the emergency action “the best option in a bad situation.” At the other end of the striped bass’ migratory route, the president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, Steve Atkinson, said that the current plight of the striped bass created an “either pay me now, or pay me more later” situation and that given such a situation, “I always prefer the now option. This fishery has been in decline for years, and it is time that they took bold action to save it.”

The advocacy group Stripers Forever called the combination of emergency action and the decision to begin work on Addendum II “An enormous win for striped bass,” while the American Saltwater Guides Association deemed such votes “two historic actions,” and observed that “While the road to striped bass recovery is still a long one, the Board’s strong conservation-minded action today can give the entire community hope that this stock will rebuild and that the Board can make the hard but necessary decisions to manage striped bass.”

So far, no angling or industry organizations have openly criticized the Board’s actions, although some such criticism may come in time. Right now, all of the criticism has come from individuals, who focus on the emergency measure making it more difficult for anglers to keep striped bass. An article in The SandPaper, a coastal New Jersey news outlet, is typical, with the author complaining about “another squeeze on our keeping striped bass,” “this latest cutback on keeperage,” and “the mindlessness of those anglers wanting a total unhook-and-release policy for their now neurotically beloved bass,” without ever acknowledging the perils now facing the striped bass stock.

But the die has been cast. Within 60 days, every state will have adopted measures intended to reduce striped bass landings, and by the August Board meeting, stakeholders will get their first look at what 2024 management measures might look like.

As the American Saltwater Guides Association noted, the road to striped bass recovery is still a long one, but after the Board’s latest meeting, we can finally say that progress is being made.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and award-winning blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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