As managers continuously fail with striped bass, personal conservation choices are critical
Last week I wrote about how MD DNR had decided to increase harvest by 14% in the Chesapeake Bay despite a declining striped bass stock and likely a mandatory reduction in fishing mortality in 2015. The decision was based on the only good year class we’ve seen since 2003 (the 2011 fish) which should recruit into the Chesapeake Bay fishery this spring. Certainly, given the decline, that year class should be vigorously protected, at least until they get old enough to leave the Bay and become part of the coastal stock. Unfortunately, MD DNR didn’t feel that way. They chose to increase harvest simply because under the old plan they could get away with it. Under the new stock assessment, which uses a more appropriate model/better science, such a reduction would mean… well, it would mean overfishing. You can read that blog here: WITH STRIPED BASS, PRO HARVEST VS. PRECAUTION.
The point of that blog was that most state managers continuously do the wrong thing if they can find a way to do it. They often don’t have the leeway to do otherwise. We live in a political world, where short term interests often override long term sustainability. Managers, of course, work for politicians. While yes, it sucks, for the most part they are really just doing their respective jobs. Over the years, however depressing it may be, it’s become clear to me that this is simply an unfortunate truth.
With that point being abundantly made last week, unless the political landscape changes in a significant way and I don’t believe it will. If anything the anti-regulation sentiment will likely get worse. I am beginning to believe that personal conservation choices may be a saving grace. If internet activity is any indication, enough people are pissed off about recent actions/inactions on striped bass, and enough people want an abundant striped bass fishery, not a badly depleted one. They are willing to make the short term sacrifices to insure this happens. Really, there aren’t many striped bass anglers left, who don’t see the decline. Even those folks less prone to precaution/conservation seem to be acknowledging this, and pleading for ASMFC to take some action… before things get really bad. Yes, ASMFC seems to be ignoring such pleas, but the point Is — the pro-harvest folks, who seem to be claiming that there are still a ton of stripers around, are a shrinking minority. In fact, save for the occasionally vocal party/charter and commercial fishing interests, the only people who seem to be saying this are the state managers themselves. It’s pretty disconcerting when you hear a state manager say that the striped bass are so abundant they are eating everything. Seriously? What the (expletive) is that about? I should note here that these are people who spend most of their time behind a desk rather than on the water. But I’m getting off point. The point is that I believe the majority of striped bass anglers see the problem and want to see these fish conserved rather than ruthlessly exploited so a few special interests can make a buck off of them. But… I think that means little to some state managers.
So, if we were to institute some sort of organized, voluntary conservation restriction for striped bass anglers, and assuming such a restriction caught on, then certainly it could have a measurable effect, could it not?
Certainly one could argue that if anglers want conservation for striped bass then they should just practice conservation on the water (e.g. practicing catch and release, only keeping one fish, only keeping a fish over a certain size, etc…). But the reality is that just because an angler wants to see striped bass managed differently, doesn’t mean he/she will practice such conservation on the water, because of the usual “Tragedy of the Commons”. In other words, despite what I feel about the management of the species, if that guy is keeping two fish at 28”, why shouldn’t I? That’s just human nature. And certainly it’s not unreasonable to think that any personal conservation choice I might make won’t in the end add up to much, when everyone one else is keeping their limit. That’s a tough one to overcome, and why, for the last couple of decades, I had kind of thought personal conservation choices were, for the most part, worthless in the grand scheme of things, and that the real way to save the stock was though advocacy, which would someday convince Commissioners that we needed precaution. Obviously that has failed, for the reasons I detailed in my last blog.
Yes, I am still of the opinion that fisheries problems are primarily solved through a change in public policy. But in the end, “public policy” is really little more than an amalgamation of personal choices expressed in legislation or rule-making by popular demand. So yes, if enough people do it, peer pressure can and does work, and there are examples that personal conservation choices could ultimately lead to a broader change in angler behavior. When Lee Wulff said that “game fish are too valuable to be caught only once,” those words had resonance and inspired a great majority of cold-water anglers to release fish despite what were once ridiculous bag limits. No-kill areas came after the paradigm shift inspired by individuals, and not before. When BASS tournaments began to emphasize catch-and-release, they created a paradigm shift among largemouth anglers, who suddenly started releasing their “hawgs” instead of hanging them on a chain for display at the local gas station. Decades ago it was perfectly acceptable to hang tarpon, sailfish, sharks and marlin for display and then toss them in a dumpster. Today, while it’s still legal to do this (except in the case of Florida tarpon), you certainly don’t see it happening often because it’s widely frowned upon in the angling community. Without a doubt, such conservation standards were created by peer pressure and community resolve.
Yes, it would be nice to see state managers have some balls, but I don’t see that happening right now given the current political climate. I think, at least in the case of striped bass, that some sort of organized personal voluntary conservation restriction, at least until ASMFC takes significant action, is the way to keep the striped bass fishery going.
As I stated in my last blog, I really think the 1@32 initiative has legs. If it isn’t clear by the name, what we’re talking about here is broad appeal for anglers across the coast to agree to keep only one fish at 32”. I’m so darn cynical, it’s been hard for me to believe that significant number of anglers would agree to do this. Or if such an initiative wasn’t simply “preaching to the choir”. But I don’t think it really is. Like I said, there are a ton of us out there, I think the majority at this point, who are pissed off about the way the Commission has mismanaged striped bass. It is such an important species to us… to all of the recreational fishing community. And while this majority may want conservation for striped bass, and certainly some have incorporated personal conservation choices into their own fishing practices, there are still a lot of anglers out there who simply don’t have any direction. One of the things about this initiative that makes it so attractive in the practical sense is that I think keeping one fish at 32” per day is generally acceptable to most anglers out there. And it could have a real reduction in fishing mortality. With social media and other digital avenues, it isn’t’t hard to get such a message out to the striper coast. It could really catch on. I hope it does.
In short, while I certainly wouldn’t have admitted this a few years ago, it’s not unreasonable to believe that a majority of striped bass anglers will be releasing fish that they could technically keep, because of the 1@32 initiative. Precisely because of the digital medium and various outlets where writers can speak the truth without frightened editors worried about advertising, we have a mostly educated fishing public. Indeed that is a good thing. Where fishery managers don’t seem to have the capacity to change, anglers can, and I think that we will.