In a Move that Caught Many in the Fishing Business Off-Guard, ASMFC Takes Emergency Action
I run a light-tackle charter-fishing operation in New York, so let me start by saying that the striped bass fishing right now is good… I mean, really good!
As is generally the case with recreational fisheries, abundance drives participation… and the truth is that, like a lot of guides, I’m not having a problem staying booked. And on those days I’m not? All it takes is a couple of Instagram photos to change that.
This is absolutely because there are an extraordinary number of striped bass around, particularly those in the 28-to-35″ range.
An increase in angler participation would under normal circumstances be a good thing – for me, for fishing related business, for everyone. But the irony here is that such abundance is precisely why the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) felt it necessarily to take emergency action to rapidly put in place a 3″ slot limit on striped bass.
Some folks are furious, some are ecstatic, and some are patting themselves on the back…but for those of us who have followed all of this from the beginning, there’s some concern on what comes next.
How We Got Here
Back in 2019, striped bass were determined to be “overfished” (the “spawning stock biomass” had fallen below a pre-determined threshold) and “overfishing” had apparently been occurring for quite some time. According to ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management plan, if the stock is determined to be overfished, then the board is required to rebuild the stock within 10 years of the overfishing determination.
With the intent of addressing overfishing, instead of implementing more traditional methods to curb recreational fishing mortality, like a simple increase to the size limit, the Commission went with an untested/unproven slot size-limit along the coast – between 28 and 35″.
Striped bass are anadromous – they spawn in freshwater, but spend most of their adult lives in saltwater. While there are other significant producer areas (e.g., the Hudson and Delaware watersheds) and plenty of less significant ones spanning all the way up to Maine, it’s the Chesapeake that produces an estimated 60 to 80 percent of the coastal striped bass stock. Or at least it used to…
An annual Maryland Juvenile Abundance Survey has been occurring in the Chesapeake Bay since the mid-1950s (see chart) . It’s nothing more intricate than a few guys dragging a sein-net in a few predetermined areas. Yet, it is a surprisingly-good way of forecasting what the fishery is going to look like 7 or 8 years down the road when those fish recruit into the exploitable coastal stock.
While the Chesapeake certainly hasn’t had the production that it had from the 90s though the mid-2000s, we did have some relatively good years, 2011 and 2015 in particular. For one reason or another, 2011, which was an extraordinary year class, didn’t recruit into the coastal stock in the levels many were expecting it too. But… it appears the 2015s did.
Maybe the Slot Limit Wasn’t Such a Great Idea?
Back in 2019 when the Striped Bass Board was debating what sort of measures to put in place to address overfishing, many of us were opposed to a slot limit, favoring a 35″ limit instead…because, well, that worked to rebuild striped bass in the 80s.
Since then, I might have changed my tune once or twice, because the 28 to 35″ slot limit undoubtedly resulted a lot of big-old-females going back into the water, instead of someone’s cooler. Whether it was directly related or not, we saw way more 30, 40 and 50-pounders, even a few 60s since that slot limit went into place in 2020. Most of those fish had clear scarring on their jaws, indicating they had been caught and released. Furthermore, the complaints over the radio were that it was hard to find a “keeper,” at least up until last fall. Everything was either too big, or two small. And, the end result was a pretty significant reduction in fishing mortality. It appeared after 2021 that we were well on our way to rebuilding by 2029 (10 years from the “overfished” determination).
The rationale for my initial opposition was that if the intent was to protect the few good year classes we had, sooner or later, those fish would grow into the slot size and get hammered, and I might be on record once or twice saying that fishing mortality was likely to go through the roof once the 2015s got into that 28″ range. But, well, up until last year, that concern appeared to be unfounded… until it wasn’t. While I’m not one to say I told ya so, that’s exactly what happened.
Last year, particularly in the fall, slot-sized fish showed up in great numbers. There were some truly epic blitzes along the coast, reminiscent of 2012. It was no longer very hard to find a keeper. So, naturally, fishing mortality went up. And I mean WAY up… to the extent that (if we assume effort remained constant) it would be more-or-less impossible to rebuild by 2029 under current regulations.
So, there we were, at last week’s ASMFC Striped Bass Board meeting. Clearly something needed to be done if the Board was indeed serious about rebuilding by the 2029 deadline. And as expected, a motion to initiate an Addendum to address overfishing was offered.
But what happened next was unexpected. There was a motion to address overfishing immediately, through “emergency action” in the form of a 3-inch slot limit – in other words going from a 28 to 35″ slot limit to a 28 to 31″ slot. And I understand why – we’d likely have to face truly draconian measures should we overfish like that this year.
After some discussion/debate the motion passed with only one state dissenting (New Jersey).
A couple of notes here. One, states are not required to implement the 28 to 31″ limit until July 2nd. Second, such emergency action only lasts 180-days which brings us into October. Yes, it can be renewed, but the motion to initiate an addendum passed unanimously, the intent of which is to address overfishing in a more technical and process-oriented way, while allowing for public input, and ultimately creating well-thought-out, vetted measures for the 2024 fishing season.
Yes… There are lots of folks who are pissed about this, for more than one reason. For one, the fishing public was totally unaware such a regulation was coming to pass. There was no opportunity for public comment, and no real way for managers to understand completely what the impact on businesses might be. Furthermore, it’s kind of a shot in the dark. There was no analysis of what sort of effect this might have on rebuilding.
The charter party fleet overall seems to be furious. And I understand why. To them this was out of the blue, and a lot of them had booked the year out with the understanding that one fish per person at 28 to 35″ was the limit. And, while taking a fish home may not be important to some folks, it is to most of the 6-pack and party-boat operations.
And there are plenty of folks questioning whether or not this is an “emergency” at all. Anecdotally, there do appear to be more fish around… in some regions a LOT more. And, just speaking personally, the fishing is better than I’ve seen it in well over a decade. Yes, extraordinary levels of abundance seem to be regional in nature, but if you’re truly tied in to the fleet up and down the coast, you’ll understand that the folks who spend real time on the water concede that while patterns may be changing, there’s been a real increase in fish up and down the coast, with maybe the Chesapeake being the one exemption. And, to some extent the data shows such an uptick as well.
We should also acknowledge that there are more than a few biologists who believe that the target spawning stock biomass reference point (what we’re tasked with rebuilding to) isn’t going to be easy to reach no matter what constraining measures are put in place. And they have legitimate reasons to believe that this may be the case.
Back in 2018, recreational survey data was recalibrated, and it was determined that recreational effort was underestimated. When those estimates were plugged into the model, the end result was that we had a higher spawning stock biomass target (again, what we have to reach by 2029) than we had before the recalibration. There are some folks who claim that it’s artificially high, and I get why.
For the entire time series, going back to 1982, it looks like the only time we reached the target was from 2002 to 2006. Yes, theoretically, if we kept fishing mortality at or below the fishing-mortality-target, we could have and should have been at that target quite a bit more frequently. But still, it does seem to be unusual level of abundance when you consider we’ve only hit it 4 years in a 41-year time series, during a time when the Chesapeake Bay was definitely more productive than it has been in the last decade.
Regardless, given the current abundance of fish, particularly those 2015s that fall into the slot size, and the effort increase that almost always results from such abundance, it’s really NOT going to be easy to keep fishing mortality at such a level, and there are real tradeoffs that some don’t seem to want to talk about, or even acknowledge.
Without going too far down a rabbit-hole, we also have to understand that the biomass target we’re trying to hit is empirical and NOT biological. Thus, some are questioning whether it’s based on good science at all.
Where This May Go Wrong…
To be truthful, the 28 to 31″ inch slot limit won’t affect me much, if at all. While sure we kill a fish or two every now and then, folks don’t fish with me, or any of the light-tackle folks really, to fill coolers. It’s undoubtedly a business model that focuses more on the experience rather than harvest.
But let’s be VERY clear about something here. That does NOT mean that light-tackle folks, or the catch-and-release constituency in general, is without blame.
Understand that recreational discard mortality (those fish that die after release) is more than half of all recreationally related fishing mortality. For some, that’s kind of hard to believe, but when you consider the scale of the striped bass angling community it does come into focus.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, from a manager’s perspective, while the entire burden of addressing overfishing and rebuilding the stock has been placed on the stakeholders who find it important to take home a fish, the catch-and-release folks haven’t shouldered any of the burden, even though we are responsible right now for 50% of the mortality. At least not yet…
And speaking personally now, THAT is what really worries me about all of this.
Absolutely, this narrow slot limit is going to make it quite a bit harder for folks to find a keeper. It’s possible that we’ll see harvest-oriented folks reducing effort on striped bass because it’s just too hard to “limit out.” But it seems more likely that those folks are just going to hit striped bass harder and harder, looking for that elusive keeper. And that may end up meaning that discards go up, maybe WAY up. Of course, I’m trying to hold my breath here while the technical folks do their analysis, but it’s entirely possible that we go from discards being 50% of overall fishing mortality to somewhere around 75%.
And looking ahead, if the tech folks tell us that we’re still not going to get to the spawning stock biomass target by 2029, well, then I can’t see them not seriously trying to address discard mortality. And to be clear I’m not talking about education on proper release techniques, or prohibiting treble hooks or whatever feel-good measures the Board might come up with. I’m talking about “no-target closures” – in other words, you can’t even be out there fishing for them. There’s been plenty of discussion by the Striped Bass Board to that effect. They just haven’t gotten to the point where they’ve felt the need to pull the trigger… yet.
Yes, I think that sort of thing will be VERY difficult to enforce, and compliance won’t be great with the average angler, but guides like me? Well, we’ll have to comply.
And, if they decided they needed to put in place a no-target closure in, say, April and May, and/or October and November in New York? Well, that would be the end of it for me, and the rest of the full-time fleet. It seems kinda weird to me to have the same sort of massive blitzes we saw last fall, and to be prohibited from even catch-and-release fishing for them.
Frankly, this all scares the crap out of me, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t keep me up at night.
Because the truth is that there are plenty of people who wouldn’t care one bit if the most conservation-minded sector of the for-hire sector gets shut out.
The “take care of the fish and the fish will take care of us” cliché is something I’ve believed in and lived-by for the last three decades. But with where we might be headed, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I believe there should be reasonable, albeit sustainable access, and I think the great majority of anglers would agree. But I’m honestly not sure the road we’re going down is going to include that.
Yes, maybe I’m overthinking all of this, and there’s some paranoia involved (it wouldn’t be the first time). But really, it seems like the pro-conservation-at-any-cost stance some folks are taking is, well, it’s playing with fire… and I’m not sure they really understand that.
Stay tuned… and we’ll see how all this plays out.