Reducing fishing mortality by 50% may sound extreme but it’s the right thing to do
I’m in Montauk this week and next. So being that I’ll be writing blogs in-between 8-plus-hour stints of chasing unusually sparse pods of albies and stripers, expect uncharacteristically brief pieces for these two weeks (unfortunately, as regular readers of this column have likely noticed, I don’t really have the gift of saying something meaningful in under 1000 words).
But, here goes… Earlier this week, Tony Friedrich, CCA MD’s Executive Director, sent me their comments on the 2012 Benchmark Striped Bass Stock Assessment. Yes, the benchmark was released a few weeks ago, but I’ve avoided writing about it because the 2012 numbers still need to be added (presumably that will happen in Oct), and because, well, I’ve been too darn busy fishing to read and digest the whole thing. But getting back on point, Tony forced me to give it a look this week. I think CCA MD pretty much has it right. CCA MD Comments on 2013 Striped Bass Stock Assessment.
I will note here that it’s good to see that at least one CCA state still believes in one of the founding principles of that organization… That is, the needs of the fish must come before the needs of any user group (I’m paraphrasing of course). That doesn’t appear to apply to any of the CCA chapters down south right now, but that’s an entirely different blog. I suspect this is an indication that the Mid Atlantic and New England CCA states will take a solid conservation position on striped bass. Indeed that’s a good thing.
As I understand it, the old striped bass stock assessment was kind of a mishmash. In assessing the appropriate fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass levels, it averaged out two “Ricker models” and two “statistical catch-at-age models”, and it came to a conclusion that was neither fish nor fowl (all pun intended). The Ricker model for striped bass probably wasn’t appropriate in the first place. I’m told that such models are generally used for species such as salmon, where overcrowding in limited nursery habitat actually reduces recruitment (not the case with a species like striped bass where there appears to be plenty of spawning habitat), and where a reduction in the population, within reason, leads to higher recruitment. The Ricker Model is one of those things that gets hauled out every time someone wants to kill more fish (e.g. RFA was pushing it for fluke back around 2004 or 2005).Getting back to the stock assessment itself, as expected, it shows that stripers are not overfished, and overfishing still isn’t occurring. Before you throw your hands up, let me explain. This does not necessarily mean more of the same. Clearly the stock is in trouble, and there is some acknowledgement of that in the assessment itself. And I think even those managers prone to avoid any tough decisions are beginning to see the writing on the wall.
The new assessment is strictly “statistical catch-at-age”, and comes to the conclusion that you’d expect once the less appropriate model is off the table. That is, the fishing mortality reference points are too high. The stock assessment concluded that we need to reduce fishing mortality pretty significantly if we are to avoid big problems in the future. As mentioned, the final 2012 numbers will be added to the assessment at the October ASMFC meeting. Until then, it is difficult to put a number on the percentage of reduction recommended. But it will probably somewhere around 40 or 50%. Which is entirely reasonable, and a worthwhile sacrifice if it will stop the decline and get the stock back to abundant levels.
Without any change in fishing mortality, overfishing is a virtual certainty in 2014, and there is an increased chance of an overfished stock by 2015/2016, although that begins to decline thereafter when that anomalous strong 2011 year class (amongst 8 years of average to below-average year classes) begins to recruit into the fishery. That’s of course assuming that a significant number of 2011 fish do indeed recruit into the fishery. Given the lack of much before or behind them, and the pressure they will likely face, I have my doubts.
As the CCA comments point out, there’s no doubt that reductions are needed. Where the real doubt lies is whether ASMFC has sufficient guts or integrity to make such real and likely painful reductions. If I had to make a guess, given the rumblings I’ve heard, I’d have to say that ASMFC will approve some sort of reduction in fishing mortality. Yet, given the management body’s reluctance to make the real hard choices, and its constant proclivity to “meet half-way” (e.g. invoking half-measures), I’m not confident it will be the 50% reduction in F we really need. Yet, as mentioned in other blogs. I’m perpetually cynical, which is likely the result of being around this stuff too long.
Now might be a good time to contact your commissioners and ask them to reduce fishing mortality significantly, and to do it now! So that we can stop what is so obviously a decline in what has become perhaps the most important fish to the Mid-Atlantic and New England recreational fishing community. Here’s the link to your Commissioner’s contact info: ASMFC Commissioners.