ASMFC Almost Gets it Right With Striped Bass

IMG_0504I entered the meeting room with some trepidation.

For the past year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had been debating the implications of the most recent benchmark assessment of the striped bass stock, and whether changes needed to be made to management measures.  And for the past year, I and a host of other anglers who cared about the striped bass resource had been speaking to whoever would listen, arguing for conservative, science-based striped bass management.

For some of us, this was a new fight.  For many others, it was the possible culmination of a debate that began back in 1995, when ASMFC declared the bass stock recovered and set annual catch limits that seemed far too high.  For a few of us, gray-haired and long in the tooth, it was one more vital battle in a war that began in the seeming mists of time, when the bass collapsed in the late 1970s.

But whatever our experience, it was a battle we feared we might lose.

It shouldn’t have been that way.  The science, the management plan and even ASMFC’s charter were all in our favor.  Public opinion was overwhelmingly on our side.

But this was ASMFC, where a few dozen commissioners, most with no formal training in fisheries management and unbound by law or the courts, could ignore all that and vote as their whim and their wallets desired.

An influential commissioner from Maryland had already put a proposal on the table to overthrow a vital conservation provision in the management plan, arguing that “socio-economic impacts” justified such a change.

Ahead of the meeting, I had a quick talk with a commissioner I knew from New England, and he told me what I had suspected:  From the talk at the dinner the night before, the outcome was truly in doubt.  One or two votes could decide things.

A former commissioner caught me walking in the door, and said that even the vote of my home state of New York was in doubt.

And so the battle was joined…

It was soon apparent that the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions—Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission—were hoping to frustrate the process.  It was also apparent that a few commissioners from a few other states wanted to see them succeed.

Their attack began well before the general debate, when they began a close questioning of the folks presenting the science to the Striped Bass Management Board.  The facts were clearly against them, but as an attorney, I recognized their tactic.  Like defense counsel in a capital case, they were trying to raise “reasonable doubt” about the stock assessment—just enough doubt to convince the panel to let the bad guy go free.

Adam Nowalsky, a charter boat captain and the legislative proxy from New Jersey, asked questions about retrospective bias in the assessment which suggested that it underestimated biomass and overestimated fishing mortality.  His question was later echoed by Emerson Hasbrouck, governor’s appointee from New York, and Robert O’Reilly of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.  But a Technical Committee representative made it clear that any biases that did exist were no worse than those in any other management plan.

Hasbrouck then asked whether the projections for stock recovery under the various options presented—which showed that making all harvest cuts in a single year would lead to the quickest recovery—were statistically similar when the uncertainty inherent in each calculation was considered.  A Technical Committee representative conceded that they were, but Hasbrouck lost the point after Jim Gilmore, New York’s marine fisheries director, pointed out that the one-year option was the only one that might let managers know whether the new management measures were working before the next stock assessment was done.

And the Chesapeake jurisdictions kept hammering at the fact that a smaller population than we have today can still produce good year classes every now and then, asking the tech folks to confirm that was not true.

By the time that the voting started, what should have been a routine matter—accepting fishing mortality reference points from a peer-reviewed stock assessment that clearly represented the best available science—turned into a grudging, grinding retreat by the Chesapeake folks, that took far longer than it should have.

O’Reilly opposed accepting the science, calling the reference points “extremely conservative” and warning about the “ecological consequences” of high striped bass abundance—most particularly his concern that the striped bass will eat too many blue crabs (which got along with the stripers perfectly well for thousands of years, until the watermen that O’Reilly represents started to kill them).

Martin Gary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission questioned whether the spawning stock reference points in the assessment “are even achievable,” while Kyle Schick, proxy for Virginia’s legislative appointee, blamed declining striped bass catch not on a shrinking population, but on a poor economy and the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

But Paul Diodati, the marine fisheries director for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, called the assessment “one of the best I’ve seen” and just about everyone agreed.  The reference points were adopted by a vote of 12 in favor and the four Chesapeake votes against.

It was harder than it should have been, but the striped bass won its first fight of the day.

After that, the Management Board addressed the core issue—how long it should take to reduce fishing mortality to the new, lower target.

The current management plan makes it clear that all reductions must be made in one year, and Diodati of Massachusetts made a motion to that effect.  To no one’s surprise, O’Reilly of the PRFC quickly moved to amend, replacing one year with three, and thus began an hours-long grind.

In previous posts, I observed that the striped bass vote would test the credibility and integrity of ASMFC.  Thus, I was pleased to see that there were many folks on the Management Board intent on honoring its commitment, including Richie White, governor’s appointee from New Hampshire, who forthrightly stated that the debate

“comes down to the credibility of the commission…I gave my word to the public at this time [when Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass adopted the requirement to reduce harvest within one year]”

Pat Keliher, marine fisheries director of the State of Maine, echoed those sentiments, saying that it was

“time to honor our commitment to the resource and to the public.”

Dr. Louis Daniels, fisheries Director of the State of North Carolina also stood on principle, saying

“We made a commitment in Amendment 6 and we need to stick with that commitment.”

Representative Sarah Peake, the legislative appointee from Massachusetts, opposed dragging the cuts out over three years, noting the overwhelming public support for making them all in one year and saying

“The public has expressed that they have a sense of urgency about this.”

Of course, the Chesapeake Bay states had no intention of giving up their fight to delay stock rebuilding, and they pulled out all the stops trying to make their case.

Schick of Virginia, perhaps remembering Richard Nixon’s conjuring of a “silent majority,” argued that the anglers providing public comment were just a small minority of the millions of people who fish for striped bass and who—if they had spoken—would have supported a three-year phase-in.  A couple of dozen supporters of the 1 @ 32” Pledge responded by holding up bright yellow “1 @ 32 inches” signs, which clearly made Schick uneasy.

Dan Ryan, representing the District of Columbia, tried to elicit sympathy by arguing that the fishermen he represented only caught bass under 20 inches long, and did it from shore, claiming that if the harvest cuts were taken in a single year

“We will effectively eliminate the fishery for our shorebound anglers,”

who apparently need to pound on the 2011 year class before it matures.

Thomas O’Connell, the Maryland marine fisheries director who first put the three-year option into the draft addendum, began to realize that the tide had turned against his position, and asked for sympathy of another sort, saying that he knew that the Chesapeake states didn’t have the votes to prevail, but that he hoped that the rest of the states would view the three-year option as an “olive branch” offered up by the Bay states that he hoped would be accepted.

And just in case the olive branch wasn’t accepted, another Maryland commissioner, Russell Dize, proxy for the legislative appointee, assured the Management Board that he’d been a waterman for 55 years, and that the most striped bass that he’d ever seen in his life were swimming around out in Chesapeake Bay right now.

And, of course, those bass were eating up all of the crabs…

Someone, I don’t remember who, also argued that if people were required to release most of their fish, some of those released fish were going to die.  Massachusetts’ Paul Deodati put the comment in perspective by noting that

“Eight or nine percent release mortality is a lot less than the 100% mortality from keeping the fish.”

In the end, New Jersey and Delaware joined with the four Bay jurisdictions, but the three-year proposal went the way of the dodo, with six in favor and the other ten against.

Still, the other states weren’t completely unsympathetic to those bordering Chesapeake Bay, and made it clear that a reasonable compromise would be considered.  However, when O’Connell of Maryland proposed splitting the baby and taking two years to reduce harvest to target levels, neither the Management Board nor the audience, which was allowed to make limited comments, was particularly impressed, and the motion was ultimately withdrawn.

So O’Connell tried again, making a motion that would require coastal harvest to be reduced by 25% next season, but only require a 20.5% cut—calculated to reduce harvest to target within those two years—in the Bay.  The compromise was unlikely to reduce overall harvest to target levels within one year, as the majority wanted, but the coastal harvest was so much larger than that in the Bay that the technical folks suggested that it probably wouldn’t take too much longer.

Still, there was plenty of wrangling, with Tom Fote, governor’s appointee from New Jersey, strongly objecting to a proposal that would allow the Bay jurisdictions to cut back less than the coast.  There was some merit to that case, but in the end, the motion was overwhelmingly accepted, with only New Jersey and Delaware voting against.

The bass had won another round, although not as decisively.  And they won another when every state but New York voted against allowing the transfer of commercial quotas, a proposal that, if it had passed, made it very likely that the commercial sector—which was already going to take a smaller real cut than the anglers—would have maintained its current level of harvest.

After that, things grew a lot less exciting.  The 28-inch size limit was retained for both recreational and commercial fishermen, and the recreational bag limit was reduced to a single fish.  However, as is typical in ASMFC management, states will be allowed to propose alternate measures deemed to have “conservation equivalency” with the proposal adopted.

That debate took a strange turn.  One fish at 28 inches or more would reduce harvest about 31%, but the Management Board decided that states could achieve conservation equivalency with measures that only achieved the 25% reduction needed to reduce mortality to target within one year.  Thus, the states who opt for conservation equivalency will be able to take a smaller cut than those which actually adhere to the measures that the Management Board approved.

So, in the end, ASMFC almost did the right thing, which is a lot better than what usually happens.

Still, in requiring just a 20.5% cut in Chesapeake Bay, and in making the 25% coastal commercial reduction from Amendment 6 quotas rather than from the reported landings, the actual reduction will be somewhere below 25%.  Since ASMFC started out with just a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality to target within one year, even if the full 25% reduction was achieved, we’re left with a management plan that will probably fail to achieve its objective.

In addition, the decision to grant conservation equivalency to management measures that only reduce a state’s harvest by 25% could tempt a lot of jurisdictions to come up with ways to kill a second fish, which can hardly be good for a stock that is almost certain to be overfished by next year.

Given where a lot of us feared we’d end up going into the meeting, we’re not in a bad place right now, but the outcome of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board meeting really highlights the reasons why the federal fisheries management system, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s mandates, are far superior to those of ASMFC.

For if ASMFC had to abide by the Magnuson Act’s standards, the striped bass’ recovery would have begun on January 1, 2014—if not before.  The fishing mortality reference points from the benchmark stock assessment would have been adopted more than a full year ago, and measures to reduce harvest to target, and to rebuild what will soon be an overfished stock, would have been adopted soon after.

There would have been no opportunity for states to try to game the system, using conservation equivalency, to kill more than one fish or reduce the minimum size.  One striped bass of 28 inches or more would have been the law of the land in every state on the striper coast, applicable whether the angler fished from a private boat, a party or charter vessel, a bridge, the beach or a pier.

Striped bass would be governed by a single, uniform standard, wherever they happened to swim.

We’re not going to get to that point for quite a few years, ifwe ever do (and I think that we really should try).

In the meantime, striped bass anglers should be happy just with the fact that, for once, ASMFC almost got it right, that striped bass will have some real added protection next year, and that we’re now at a place where we can put pressure on our own state managers to be true to the votes that they cast at the meeting and give the striper a real chance to thrive.

Everyone who took part in this fight should feel proud.

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Charles Witek grew up in coastal Connecticut, fishing for Long Island Sound’s then-abundant bottom fish before graduating to weakfish, bluefish and striped bass. He was already in his early twenties, and an avid striped bass angler, when the stock began to collapse. It was then that he had a chance meeting with Bob Pond, creator of the Atom plug, who was an early advocate for striped bass conservation. Pond’s efforts touched a chord and Witek, too, took up the striper’s cause. Over the years, he became more involved in conservation issues, serving as a bluefin tuna technical advisor to the US ICCAT delegation and holding a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He is currently a member of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council and a sits on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel. He is also a Vice President of the New York State Outdoor Writers’ Association. Witek currently resides, with his wife Theresa, on New York’s Long Island, where he fishes for everything from back-bay weakfish to canyon tunas from his 31’ Ocean Master, Arion.

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