At ASMFC Last Week, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A good week for fluke… not so much for striped bass and winter flounder

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

So what would you like first, the good news or the bad news?  Okay then, let’s start with the good.

Commissioners did indeed vote to go to a regional management system for summer flounder (fluke) for this year’s fishing season.  In other words, no more state-specific regulations.  States will be grouped together into geographic regions that, for the most part, appear to make biological sense.  For background please read my last blog on summer flounder here:  Seriously, What the Fluke?!.

Yes, if you live in New Jersey and feel entitled to a smaller size limit and larger bag limit (at the expense of other states) based on a single year baseline adopted when the stock distribution was entirely different than it is now, this might not be considered good news.  Yet, for most states, particularly New York, and certainly for the summer flounder stock, it is very good news.

Recreational survey data (from MRFSS and now MIRP) can now actually be used on a much more appropriate scale.  The larger the scale, the greater the precision with such surveys.  So, at least in theory, we’ll have better science, and a better idea of what is actually going on with the summer flounder stock.  So there’s that.

And certainly, given that New York had been shouldering the burden for the last decade or so, the regions create a situation that is not only more biologically sound, but one that is a lot more fair.   Yes, there exists the issue of New Jersey now having a size limit that is a full two inches larger than its neighboring state Delaware, and some are arguing that southern New Jersey got the short end of the stick and we just shifted the inequity south…   But I don’t see it that way.

The prior 15 year system of state specific allocations, based upon a single 15 year old baseline year, created a system where one state out of nine received 40% of a public resource.  As the stock rebuilt and shifted its center of abundance, such lopsided allocation was neither biologically justified nor fair.  Because the summer flounder’s center of abundance moved from New Jersey to New York, we had to constrain harvest with a significantly higher minimum size and lower bag limit than every other state.  New York’s retention rate was the lowest on the coast.  New York shouldered a burden not shared by anyone.  That had to change.

Sure this might not seem ideal to some, but all arguments that this regional system is not fair to New Jersey, which enjoyed 15 years of the largest allocation on the coast, rest on the very questionable premise that the state was somehow entitled to the lion’s share of the resource.  All things considered, what ASMFC unanimously approved last week is a pretty good solution to a management problem that has long plagued the summer flounder fishery.  That said, these new regions are only in effect for 2014.  I suspect they will be extended if they work out the way they are supposed to, but we shall see.  Huge props to Gov Cuomo and Councilman Tony DiLernia for pushing this one though.  You can read the Governor’s press release here:  Governor Cuomo Announces Approval of Regional Management of Fluke.

Now, let’s talk about “the bad”, and what happened with striped bass.

Based on a recently completed striped bass stock assessment, which indicated that lower fishing mortality reference points were more appropriate for this fishery, last October ASMFC unanimously voted to draft two separate addenda.  One which would propose adoption of the new lower fishing mortality reference points, and one which would provide a range of alternatives that would get us there.  You can find more info on this (as well as an explanation of what these reference points actually are) in a blog I did on this meeting:  ASMFC MOVES ON STRIPED BASS.

During that meeting, after a lot of discussion, it was agreed that the board would consider approval of the first draft addendum for public comment in February, and consider approval of the second draft addendum for public comment in May.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

This made sense, because in keeping the first addendum limited to just the fishing mortality reference points, the debate would simply be about using the newest and “best available science”.  And so the discussion wouldn’t get bogged down with long discussions of management options – e.g. “gamefish” proposals, slot limits, different bag-limits for for-hire and private anglers, etc.  The focus would solely be on reducing fishing mortality.  That would have been good thing, because what the stock needs right now is a reduction in fishing mortality.  Frankly, it matters little to me how we do that…  It just needs to be done.

Yet, that’s not what happened at last week’s meeting.  What should have been a short “best available science” discussion, then a vote, didn’t take place. The Management Board instead decided to delay consideration of the draft addendum until the May meeting.  Why?  I’m still trying to figure that one out.  As far as I can tell, a majority of the Management Board simply felt that it was more efficient for both addenda to be considered at the same time.  The Board wouldn’t have to take public comment twice, etc…  I don’t really get the rationale, as the discussion pretty much took the opposite tack (that we needed two separate addenda and have two separate discussions) than it did in October…  But I don’t get a lot of stuff that happens around that table.

I’m trying really hard to believe that this was just a decision based on efficiency, but because delaying/avoiding conservation action is endemic at ASMFC, I can’t help but think it was intentional.  I’m guessing the discussion in May, when the adoption of the new fishing mortality reference points is combined with the “how we get there” stuff, is going to be a complete shit-show, and this very well may jam up the process.  That said, the Board was very clear in saying that this would not delay action in 2015, which was the target specified back in October, so I don’t know.  It may be that some are banking on better young-of-the-year numbers coming out this fall, which could allow Commissioners to argue that everything is just fine with stripers because a new good year-class is coming up through the ranks.  But I’m pretty sure they won’t have those numbers by May.  Whatever the case, if you don’t separate the two topics it’s entirely reasonable to believe that folks may dig in their heels and try to kill the whole thing.  The ASMFC’s ability to avoid doing the right thing is often extraordinary.  I hope I’m wrong on all of this, but I have to admit, I’m throwing my hands up here.  I guess we’ll see.

Now, let’s get to the downright ugly…  Winter flounder.

That species is badly overfished.  Things got so bad for winter flounder that NMFS shut it down in federal waters in 2009.  While it really should have been shut down in state waters, ASMFC kept a short season open in April and May with a two fish limit.  Then, last summer, NMFS found a way to open winter flounder again in federal waters, which I’m still not sure was even legal.  The rationale for which, as I understand it, was that the groundfishing fleet was suffering because they overfished cod so badly, so we had to give them something to catch, and allowing some flounder harvest would just turn discard losses into landings.   And so, at ASMFC last week they decided that, well since they are killing them in federal waters, then people fishing in state waters should be able to kill them also for most of the year.  I guess in their eyes two wrongs do make a right.

It was decided that the season would now be March 1-December 31, instead of just April and May.  ASMFC lists winter flounder at just 16% of what scientists consider a rebuilt stock, but they went ahead with this idiocy anyway.  Really ugly, but not terribly surprising.

So in short, yes, ASMFC did manage to get one out of three right.  In other words we came out okay summer flounder, at least for 2014.   But the management body appears to have failed, yet again with striped bass.  And the winter flounder decision?  Not justifiable by any standard.   But let’s be honest, while there is indeed the better science issue, the summer flounder decision was absolutely more about allocation than about conversation, so it’s hard to really give ASMFC any conservation credit here.

I suppose the point of all this is that it’s becoming more and more apparent that ASMFC is a complete train-wreck.    Below is a list of species they’ve failed on.

  • American eel, depleted
  •  American shad, depleted
  •  Atlantic sturgeon depleted
  •  Atlantic menhaden, overfishing occurring
  •  Horse shoe crab, decreased abundance
  •  Northern shrimp, depleted
  •  River herring, depleted
  •  Tautog (blackfish), overfished
  •  Weakfish, depleted
  •  Winter flounder, overfished

Striped bass, everything is fine (and we all know that’s not the case)

This is a pretty good look at what happens when managers aren’t required to abide by hard rebuilding goals and timelines such as those required under the Magnuson Stevens Act for federally managed species.  And, it’s a pretty good look at what “flexibility” in fisheries management looks like.  ASMFC has such flexibility and it’s pretty damn clear what they’ve done with it.

Guess what, there isn’t one federally managed stock in the Mid Atlantic that is overfished, or that is experiencing overfishing.  And we manage some of the most heavily prosecuted fisheries on the east coast (e.g. summer flounder, black seabass and scup).  We are successful precisely because we have a federal mandate to rebuild and maintain those stocks at healthy and sustainable levels, and if we overfish there are real accountability measures.  ASMFC does not have that mandate and the results are obvious.  This should be pretty damn clear to everyone at this point.  Yet, most of the recreational fishing groups, at least one of which the focus has definitively shifted from conservation to “anglers rights” (read entitlement) appear to be asking for such flexibility.  Do they not understand, or do they simply not care?

Those organizations, and all anglers, need to understand what’s happened at ASMFC and perhaps take it as a cautionary tale.

Note:  Charlie Witek wrote another excellent blog on this subject this week.  It may bum you out some, but it’s definitely worth the read.  MAGNUSON REAUTHORIZATION: THE “END OF DAYS” FOR MARINE CONSERVATION?

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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  1. […] it out to public hearing first. By the way, they were supposed to do this back in February (see At ASMFC Last Week, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly) but then had some sort of convoluted conversation about how it should be put off until this […]

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