The Science is the Science

How NOAA's rec survey works

Is the Science Perfect? No, But Without It, We Got Noth’n’

Hey, man… I’m gonna admit here that sometimes I have a real hard time understanding the science behind fisheries management decisions. What I mean really is not just the nuts and bolts on how fisheries scientists get to the numbers that they do, but rationalizing it all with what I and, of course, other folks actually see on the water.

Before getting into all this, I should be clear that I spend most of my life underway, looking for fish. I’ve been in the charter business for over two decades now, but about a decade ago, I kinda decided that I didn’t want to spend my life behind a computer screen, and that I was going to direct my focus on hunting fish, or really, having other people pay me to find fish for them.

Seems like a kinda silly way to make a living if you look at it objectively, but so far it’s working out for me (knocking on wood because every darn year there are unforeseen hurdles that threaten to end it all). Right now, there’s rarely a day from May through November that I’m not underway, assuming the weather is doable.

Of course, to be successful at this game, particularly the offshore part of it, you’ve got to have a pretty large network of other dudes who are out there a lot to share intel with, so yeah, I know a lot of real salty guys all along the coast.

The point is that I’d like to think that I have a pretty good handle on what’s going on any given week. Not just through my experience, but through the network of guys I regularly exchange information with.

But the Science, Man?

Let’s be honest, the general perception amongst anglers is that the data collection part isn’t great, particularly on the recreational side. Because it’s mostly done by sampling a relatively small portion of fishermen via dockside intercepts and mail-in surveys. That limited sampling gets extrapolated across the estimated number of anglers and, if you look at it on a yearly or even wave-by-wave level, the outliers are often, well, out there.

How NOAA's rec survey works

How NOAA’s rec survey works

So yeah, for a lot of folks it’s sometimes hard to believe those intercepts are representative of the entire angling community.

In general, the whole idea of counting fish in the water? Well, I’ve heard from more than one angler say, “How can that sort of thing possibly be accurate?”

And the fisheries independent surveys? To fishermen, they seem precarious also, because fish swim, right? They just aren’t going to be in the same places research vessels survey year after year.

That’s just the data side of things. All that stuff gets plugged into “models” that spit out fishing mortality, biomass estimates, etc. And certainly folks question whether those models operate like they are supposed to.

I suppose I’m simplifying things here. And I’m the first one to admit that I don’t have a full understanding of the process, the data verification, etc. Because when you get into details like that, well, my usual reaction is for my eyes to glaze over and to start thinking about more pleasant things like catching fish rather than counting them.

But yeah, man, my point is that, for watermen, it’s pretty easy to lose faith in the data, the science and, subsequently, the entire fishery management process. Especially when you’re seeing a ton of fish when the science says they are badly overfished. Or vice versa.

Honestly, it’s hard to blame people for that.

But here’s the truth.

We see what we see… Sometimes/most of the time, we see ONLY what we see.

Striped Bass (Again)

Yeah, it’s probably getting tiresome, but I’m going to use striped bass as an example here, because I touched on this recently, and, well, the reaction is kinda why I’m writing this.

Yes, I’m seeing a TON of fish. And so are most of my colleagues (not all of them). But… 100%, striped bass are overfished. What “overfished” means in this case is that the “spawning stock biomass” is below a threshold used to establish whether or not a stock is healthy. How is that level determined? Well, it differs for each species. But with striped bass, it’s based on one year (1995) when the commission concluded that the stock was no longer overfished after more than a decade of severe depletion. If I understand correctly, it’s an “empirical reference point.”

Regardless, it’s pretty clear at this point that the Chesapeake Bay, the largest producer area on the coast, just isn’t producing the fish it has been or should be. And that’s really concerning considering estimates are that it produces somewhere between 60-80% of the coastal stock. So, we better damn well tread carefully if we want to have a fishery several years from now.

Getting back on point, that “overfished” designation may be hard for some to believe given that we’ve have some extraordinary aggregations of fish moving along the coast. But once you start to dig a little deeper, it’s notable and very significant that there are historically relevant places where the fish simply haven’t been.

Overall, though? There most certainly has been an increase. Are there more fish around than there were prior to 2019? Absolutely. And the science is clear on that point. But are we at a place where we can say that striped bass are “rebuilt”? Nope, not yet. But we are indeed getting there, and we kinda have to by 2029.

Of course, after that we’ll need to deal with recruitment issues, but that’s a topic for another time.

The Science Works Both Ways

Here’s the problem, though.

There are and always have been those folks who insist that the science is just wrong, because they may see a lot of fish around. They don’t believe constraining regulations are necessary when their understanding of the stock is that it certainly appears to be abundant, at least in their neck of the woods. And I can, for sure, understand that perspective, because full disclosure, I often find myself thinking the same thing when I’m smack in the middle of the largest striped bass blitz I’ve ever seen, even though in the end, I understand that my limited perspective is just that… limited, ahem, and anecdotal.

On the other side of that pole, however, are the folks who can’t seem to grasp that things might actually be getting better, because maybe they don’t see any fish, or at least not the amount of fish they feel that they should see… Even when the science indicates that the stock is on the rise. Or they have simply prided themselves as “conservation advocates” for so long that they simply can’t bear to admit that the stock might actually be doing better.

Taking this a little bit farther, there seems to be a large group of anglers who simply don’t believe that they could possibly be part of any overfishing problem because they use a rod and reel instead of nets, or, maybe just because they don’t sell fish. And I can understand that perspective also, because when you see piles of dead fish on a gillnetter or draggers deck, or piled high to the gunnels on a pinhooker’s boat, then it sure looks like they are killing them all.

And going even farther down the rabbit hole, there seems to be a ton of catch-and-release anglers who feel they are the stock’s messiahs because they release everything. When the truth is that discard mortality accounts for a whopping 50% of all fishing-related mortality. And I can get that also, because it just seems counterintuitive that such a number would be so high. But, if you look at the science, it does makes sense pretty quickly. Because, well, there are a ton of anglers targeting them. And that number does nothing but continue to grow. There’s an assumed release mortality rate of 9%, meaning that one in eleven fish don’t survive the release. Apply that across the massive striped bass angling community and you can begin to understand that it’s significant, and the 50% number starts to makes sense.

Even so, there are still plenty of folks who question the science and say it just can’t be so, without much to back it up.

Moving on, there are those folks who also don’t believe that the 9% assumed discard mortality rate is accurate, arguing that it’s probably something much smaller, because, well, in their VERY limited experience they didn’t really see any floaters when they were fishing. I suspect that sort of disposition also has to do with the fact that it’s just uncomfortable to believe that catch and release mortality is so significant, and that conservation-minded anglers are indeed part of the problem. Frankly I have a hard time believing in that 9% number as well. Yet, just given my time on the water taking people out to catch striped bass, seeing other boats, etc., I think it’s actually higher! But that’s neither here nor there, because while I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of the best available science, I’m a supporter.

Lastly, there are plenty of folks who just don’t believe in the minimal charter/party contribution to striped bass mortality. Again, this is understandable when you see social media posts with a bunch of dead fish on the deck of a party boat. Is that sorta thing ugly? Yeah, sometimes it is. But it doesn’t mean that those folks aren’t a fraction of the striped bass angling community.

Buy hey, man, if all these things don’t fit into your world view, well then, it seems like ya just won’t believe ’em, and we’ll hear the refrain that the science is bad. It’s really no different than those folks who might witness extraordinary aggregation of striped bass and say that the science ain’t right, cause clearly there’s a ton of fish around.

But let’s be very clear about something right here, right now. No, it’s not the commercial folks who are responsible for the overfishing, and it ain’t the charter/party fleet either. It’s anglers. And the science is very clear on that.

If you chose NOT to believe that, well, then you chose not to believe that the stock is overfished. Because a small commercial fleet certainly didn’t overfish anything. They are managed by a hard quota, and get shut down when they get close to it. And should they exceed it? Well, then they’ve got to pay it back the following season. Yes, there’s poaching, and I don’t want to call it insignificant, but it’s not near as significant as recreational discard mortality.

In the End

Everyone has their own perspectives, but listen, man, we all gotta understand that they are extraordinarily limited. And this goes both ways. And that is exactly why we have to base management decisions on the science, not simply on what you might think you know. Because guess what… You really don’t know as much about the striped bass resource as you think you do, just because you saw some things.

The science? Naha man. It’s not perfect… in fact common sense would tell ya that there are inherent problems with it… but the narrative that it’s completely useless isn’t true either.

When you look at such science over longer periods and on a larger geographic scale, it does indeed seem to reflect trends in the fishery. Yeah, sometimes managers find out that it’s not entirely right, and make adjustments, and they should. But I would argue most of the time it is kinda right. And, most of the time, if there’s any error, it’s toward the conservation side rather than the overharvest one. That’s the way the system is set up, and, well, sure some folks would argue that it hasn’t worked, but in my experience it has.

Can it be improved upon? Of course, and there are and have been much smarter people than me, working to do that. But hey, man, it’s definitely not the random useless system some folks make it out to be. And in the end, well, it’s the best we’ve got.

There are certainly plenty of people bashing it, but I don’t see any real solutions, other than the usual, “we should listen to watermen more.” Yet, the process offers abundant levels of stakeholder engagement. For sure managers know and understand fishermen’s concerns as a result. But come on, man… Does anyone really believe that we should make management decisions based on fishermen’s anecdotal, geographically-limited observations, rather than science, which by definition is objective?

To some extent, we’ve been down that road. There was massive overfishing all the way up to 2000 when NRDC sued the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. And prior to revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 2006, which required that science and statistical committees set upper catch limits, with some really constraining uncertainty buffers, well, managers had a lot of flexibility to disregard the best available science. And that didn’t work out so well. Species like cod, winter flounder, pollock, etc., still haven’t come back from the damage done.

While it seems like the science might really be screwing fishermen over sometimes, in the end, I do believe it actually helps us. Because, come on, man. You actually have to have a few fish in the water to catch them. If you don’t have that, what’s the point?

We can’t just believe in the science that might suit our own world views. Because for better or worse, we all seem to have different ones. We’ve got to get behind all the science, not just the science you might like. Because you really can’t say that striped bass are overfished without first admitting that anglers are the ones responsible for it.

Just because that’s an uncomfortable fact doesn’t mean you can disregard and point the finger elsewhere. Because, with striped bass, and everything else, it all fits together.

I mean, yeah, I get it… You might not like the science because it doesn’t fit into what you see. But I’m afraid that doesn’t make it untrue…

And that’s just how it is.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

10 comments on “The Science is the Science

  1. Again thank you John for all you do on our behalf, that being the fishing community. It’s always an education appreciate your efforts on educating and informing us as to what’s going on in the area of management.
    I’d have to agree with certain areas seem to be lacking in local populations .
    It’s been my observation that the bulk of recreational anglers focus on the fall migration, when schooling fish are departing our area in massive schools that may have come as far away as Maine but are now all congregated in small geographic area.. Therefore giving the impression of endless schools of fish. This is usually their last memory of the fishing season and that will be how they see the health of the fishery.

  2. I can tell that this post has been brewing for quite some time. The “best available science” is just that – the best that we have at a given time. The ASMFC should have an ongoing program to figure out ways to continually improve what it considers “best.” It seems like the only time that we have updates and re-calculations is when errors in the science or data gathering are uncovered and that it just not good enough.

    I recognize that successful spawns are not directly related to the size of the SSB. I felt my body tense as I read your characterization of the recruitment in the Chesapeake. It is not just that the recruitment is not what it should be. The last 5 years are indicative of a recruitment failure with historically low young of year results. Several years of successful recruitment could change the outlook for the fishery. Until that happens though I think that the ASMFC has to be very conservative in their management decisions. Regardless of what does occur in the future with recruitment we now have a huge 5-year hole in the striped bass fishery that can never be replaced.

    I have been assured that the 2024 technical assessment will factor in the impact from these past 5 years of recruitment failure and the higher striped bass mortality mostly due to the 2015 being exploitable. I worry that the assessment will paint a bleaker picture than the one that you have presented here. I truly hope that I am wrong.

    Just one man’s opinion…

  3. Agree, but all that sht costs $. Spending more tax-payer dollars on better fish science/new ongoing programs to reassess, isn’t really a top priority in Congress RN, so I wouldn’t hold my breath there. In my limited/non-scientific/anecdotal experience, in most cases, striped bass specifically, the science isn’t wrong, and generally, over the course of several years, it’s been fairly accurate in the very least at revealing trends (i.e. stock increasing/stock declining). Yes, IMO it lags real world experiential stuff but does tend to catch up. In no way am I say’n that the stock ain’t in a precarious position RN, but it’s real clear that there are more fish around than there were in say 2018/2019, not just here, but in most regions. Sure different people say different things, but the science is clear on that point. You are absolutely right about recruitment. We’ve got some lean years coming up even if we do get to target by 2029. If I came across as downplaying that, it certainly wasn’t intentional. But who the hell knows what’s gonna happen along the coast? We all thought the 2011s were gonna be the stock’s saving grace, but not many of’em recruited into the coastal stock for some reason. I mean, did we overestimate that year class? I well understand that the Chesapeake accounts for an estimated 60 to 80% of the coastal stock. While I have no science to support this, it’s not unreasonable to believe that as southern producer areas’ habitat suitability declines, northern ones improve. I mean, yeah, regulations played a large part in the Gulf of St. Lawrence stock recovering, but it’s not unreasonable to believe that climate change had something to do with it also. People can discount that all they want, and it’s true that there’s no science to support it, but IMO, it’s reason for a smidge of hope. Re the Hudson, people are freak’n out about one poor year class survey. But overall, recruitment ain’t so bad there RN. Am I grasping at straws? Maybe, but what choice do I have? It’ll F’n kill me if they shut down (i.e. no-target closures) on what appears to be a supper abundant fishery in my region. Do we tread lightly, rebuild the stock to target RN and generally try and preserve as much of the SSB as we can? Absolutely. But what’s the F’n use of a no-target closure, “leaving those fish alone” particularly when there’s no stock recruitment relationship? Because really, that’s where all of this appears to be heading.

    • John,

      Since I think we are all against a no-target closure, but concerned about the recruitment stats, I have a question for you:
      What would you advocate for, regulations wise, to (as you write) “tread lightly, rebuild the stock to target right now and generally try and preserve as much of the SSB as we can” – what I am asking here is what regulations do you think would be most effective in preserving as much of the SSB as we can (do we do what we are doing now with a recreational slot limit, do we look at other regulations, do we get rid of all the chicken farms, housing developments and golf courses on the Chesapeake 🙂 etc … )?


      • The short answer is we heed the science and stick to the plan. RN we are on track with the new slot regs to rebuild by 2029. If the Oct stock assessment indicates that we are no longer on track and we have to reduce fishing mortality more, well then, we’d need to consider effort controls (i.e. No harvest seasonal closures). If we still ain’t gonna make it, even with those closures, then, ahem, IMO managers really need to consider whether or not the target is attainable. I’d hate to see the goal post lowered, but the truth is that what we have now are empirical reference points. Is it really a terrible idea to consider biological ones? I think everyone would understand the need for better science. I just don’t see the need for no-target closures unless the stock is teetering on collapse. And we are way, WAY away from that right now. Could we get there? Yes, but we’re not even close RN.

  4. John
    I was wondering what you thought of the black sea bass assessment that showed that sea bass were “undergoing overfishing” in 2021?
    Greg D

  5. John,

    Obviously you care about this fishery, but I’m curious when you say conservation advocates wont admit if a stock is on the rise? What science indicates anywhere that the striped bass is on the rise? Or any fishery for that matter? Slot limits worked, sure, and that’s great. But those fish don’t live forever, and if they aren’t spawning considering consistent poor recruitment, it just doesn’t seem like anyone should be brushing off these factors and not advocating for the most proactive conservation methods. So I just have a hard time understanding your point that the science works both ways – in that people are ignoring “good news” aside from slot limits being effective, I don’t see much else good news and I don’t think the science does either.

    • Striped bass numbers are 100% increasing. I can’t figure out how to attach a photo here, but go to ASMC Striped Bass Website: and look at the second chart. Read all the text too. You will understand that we are currently, under the new slot regs, on track to rebuild by 2029. And, that the stock has been rebuilding (read trending upward) since 2019. Certainly folks are seeing such a trend on the water too. So many federally managed fisheries either rebuilding or rebuilt. Google NMFS “status of the stocks” and you’ll find the latest report. In fact, most are rebuilt and most of the ones that are overfished are currently rebuilding. Who’s brushing off the poor recruitment? I was pretty clear in the piece that we we’re gonna need to deal with that once those year class started to recruit into the coastal stock. Did ya miss that part? If you don’t see any good news, well, it’s because you’re reading all the bias, doom-and-gloom media out there. I’m not say’n we’re outta the weeds and that we shouldn’t manage fisheries cautiously, but honestly, there’s more life out there off the south shore of Long Island than I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been fishing. To me? That’s damn good news.

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