While there will be no reduction in fishing mortality in 2014, it’s a virtual certainty in 2015
I know I titled my last blog “One More on Striped Bass”, but if you’re a striped bass angler (which is probably 99% of the readers here) it’s fairly critical I cover what happened at last week’s meeting. That said, I also desperately need to address the “slot-limit” and “gamefish” issue one more time, as fellow blogger Rip Cunningham made some interesting points in his blog this week, which are generating quite a bit of discussion on my Facebook page right now. I have to respond! And will do that next week, I promise.
But for now, let’s discuss what happened last week at the ASMFC meeting in Georgia. The Striped Bass Board met on Tuesday to discuss the results of the 2013 Striped Bass Bench Mark Assessment and to consider management action. To greatly simplify the main points of the stock assessment, it indicates that, although the stock is still not considered overfished, nor is overfishing technically occurring, the spawning stock biomass (SSB) has continuously declined since 2004. Certainly, given what we’ve just about all seen on the water, this should come as no surprise. Yet, according to the assessment, spawning stock biomass is estimated to be above the threshold for management action, but below the target. Likewise, the total fishing mortality is estimated to be between the proposed new fishing mortality threshold and fishing mortality target.
If you didn’t understand that, don’t go away… I will explain. The way striped bass are managed is based on such “thresholds” and “targets”. The “targets” are more restrictive than the “thresholds” to insure that the “thresholds” are not exceeded. The targets set conservation or management buffers, while the thresholds establish triggers that, if tripped, require a management response. Harvest is theoretically managed so that striped bass abundance remains at or above the SSB target. Although if it falls below that target, managers still aren’t required to do anything (although they certainly can if they choose to take precautionary action) unless spawning stock biomass goes below the threshold. Make sense?
Well, similar “thresholds” and “target” triggers are used for controlling fishing mortality (F). If current regulations allow fishing mortality to go above the “target”, it will be noted, but no management action need be taken unless fishing mortality goes above the “threshold”. (Note: Actually, ASMFC isn’t required by law to do anything as it isn’t constrained by federal fishery management law, but its striped bass management plan calls for management action if either threshold are exceeded).
So, if estimated fishing mortality goes above the threshold then we have “overfishing”, likewise, if the estimated spawning stock biomass goes below the threshold, we have an “overfished” stock. Such SSB and F thresholds and targets are what managers call “reference points”.
This may all sound too wonky, and I suspect I’ve already lost a few readers, but it’s important to know these basics before moving on. If you are still following, good. That likely means you really do care… a lot.
So… after reviewing the output of a mathematical model used to predict the reaction of the spawning stock biomass to different levels of fishing mortality, the Benchmark Assessment recommends that the fishing mortality “reference points” (the threshold and target) be reduced, significantly. If we fish at the current levels the probability of the stock being overfished (the spawning stock biomass dips below the threshold) in 2014 is high, and increases until 2015-2016, but declines thereafter because of the anomalous strong 2011 year class which will presumably recruit into the fishery in 3 or 4 years (note: amongst 8 years of average to below average year classes).
So, here’s what happened during the meeting. There was significant discussion about the stock assessment, the noted decline and the new reference points. There were the usual people arguing against conservation and precaution, noting that “everything is fine” and that no action be taken. Then there were the Commissioners who argued adamantly for conservation and precaution. Fortunately they were the majority. Most notable was Massachusetts’ Paul Diodati who argued adamantly that we needed to do something right now to stem the decline and protect the fish we still have around. And so, Diodati moved for a one fish at 28” coast-wide bag limit measure (down from the current two fish at 28” coast-wide), with a concurrent reduction in the commercial quota for the 2014 fishing season, which is essentially the 50% reduction CCA and a lot of us in the recreational fishing community were asking for. That motion got a lot of our hopes up that we would indeed see management action to reduce fishing mortality next year.
Unfortunately, Diodati’ s motion had little support, and failed badly when voted on. The rationale was that the majority of the Commissioners wanted the technical people to do a full analysis of what sort of regulations would be required to get us to the necessary reduction in fishing mortality. In other words, the way this sort of thing works, is that ASMFC technical committee gets tasked with developing a suite of alternatives to get us to where the Benchmark Stock Assessment says we need to be.
So… the Management Board did vote to task the technical committee to write two draft addenda. The first addendum will propose adoption of the new fishing mortality reference points recommended by the benchmark assessment. The second addendum will propose a range of commercial and recreational management measures to reduce fishing mortality to at least the target with a proposed implementation date of January 2015.
While it would have been nice to see Diodati’s motion pass, and to actually see a reduction in 2014 (uhm, maybe actually before the stock is overfished), that was really too much to ask. That’s just not the way ASMFC works. Never has been. The results of this meeting were really what we expected, and it’s not an entirely bad outcome.
The important thing is that action was taken to develop the two addenda, and it actually makes sense that it was done this way. The Board will likely 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. By keeping the first addendum limited solely to the above described fishing mortality reference points, the debate won’t get bogged down with long discussions of management options – e.g. “gamefish” proposals, slot limits (which I will absolutely discuss next week), different bag-limits for for-hire and private anglers, etc. The focus will be solely on reducing mortality/harvest reductions, and that is a good thing!
Once the new reference points are incorporated into the management plan by the first addendum, some sort of more restrictive regulations will have to be adopted by ASMFC (to the extent that ASMFC ever “has to” do anything, given the lack of lack of legal oversight of the Commission). The debate will then be more about which regulations make the most sense.
It’s entirely possible that something like another good young-of-the-year Chesapeake Bay survey could torpedo the entire thing. But I’d say that’s unlikely given the conversation that took place at last week’s meeting. Now conservation minded anglers will have to work hard, likely against a big push from the pro-harvest fringe of the recreational fishing community, to insure a significant addendum to reduce fishing mortality is developed and passes. The recreational fishing community has been uncharacteristically loud re striped bass. And that’s freak’n awesome. Trust me. Managers are getting the message. We need to, and we will keep the pressure on as things develop. Stay tuned!