An Open Letter to the ASMFC on Striped Bass

An empassioned plea for a species in peril

ASMFC
Mike Waine
Fishery Management Plan Coordinator
1050 N. Highland St, Suite A-N
Arlington, VA 22201

Dear Mr. Waine & ASMFC Commissioners:

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

I own and am the primary operator of One More Cast Charters, a light-tackle guide service operating out of Lower New York Harbor, Western Long Island, and Montauk. I am also a member of the Striped Bass Advisory Panel, I sit on the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council and am an outdoor writer, currently authoring a blog on Reel-Time.com.

Yet today, I am writing strictly as a small business owner who, like so many others, has come to depend on an abundant striped bass resource.

It is of course no secret that this point that most if not all of us have seen a noticeable and arguably drastic decline in striped bass abundance since 2004. Sure, 2004 to 2008 were still pretty good, but each year since then has been difficult for those of us who depend on striped bass abundance. This year in particular was horrendous. No, people can’t claim this is just a bunch of bad fishermen complaining. As you are aware, the downward trend has been well documented by the science. No, we’re not where we were in the 80’s but it certainly appears that we’re headed that way.

My striped bass fishery today, looks a lot different than it did several years ago. I’ve gone from a 3 boat operation which employed three guides, to a two boat operation with no other guides but myself.

April/May/June then Sept/Oct/Nov used to host a consistent striped bass fishery. Mostly fish in the 20 to 30” range with the occasional large fish in the mix to keep things interesting. I would also note that I had a fairly consistent summer small-schoolie fishery in Jamaica Bay. In fact almost all of my fishing back then was in the back-bay area. In other words, I could use my skiffs and not have to burn $200 in fuel on an inshore trip. It was almost all light-tackle, fishing plugs, soft plastics and flies.

Now, my fishery is composed of almost all large fish. We have brief periods of good fishing that last a few days… If we’re lucky a week. Then weeks of nothing. These fish are, of course, the last of the good year classes moving up and then down the coast. What we don’t have is the wide geographic distribution of fish you would find from a healthy, abundant stock. What we don’t have is that consistent fishery that I built my business on. The flats and back-bay fishing is pretty much non-existent. And most of my “good” striper fishing is on live-bait… at least in the spring. When these condensed bodies of fish do show up, almost all of it is ocean fishing from one to three miles out, which I’ll note excludes most of the small-boat/skiff guys, or the people fishing from shore for that matter.

What we also have with these geographically isolated bodies of fish is a lot of mortality on large fish. Until they show, the striper season is usually pretty dry, so word that the fish are finally around gets out pretty quick and a lot of boats get on them… and knock the crap out of them. One just needs to peruse any of the fishing websites, and see the advertising of party/charter boats limiting out, to see what happens here. Nothing kills a good day quicker than seeing 50 to 100 boats on a school of fish, with everyone gaffing the last of the 2003s.

What I’ve described above are not simply observations from a single guide. From Maine to VA, anglers and fishing guides are consistently describing the same thing. Yes, there are still a small number of people who say the fishery is “okay”, but these are generally the people who A.) Don’t spend much time on the water, and don’t have the depth of perspective that we do; or B.) Want to still be able to kill two fish, and who don’t need abundance to make ends meet. Professional guides like myself, who spend 100- to 150 days a days a year on the water and who depend on this resource to pay our mortgages see such a decline in spades.

There is, of course, the looming threat that people will simply stop booking striped bass trips, because the odds of hitting a good day become lower and lower each year, and most days the fishing is just bad. When that happens, I will be out of luck, and out of a form of income that my family and I have come to depend on.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

But forget about the guides like me for a minute.   We should also really be considering the loss of income to all the businesses who have benefited from this once abundant resource. The manufacturers and retailers of plugs, soft-plastics, surf fishing gear, light tackle gear, flyfishing gear, boats that were designed and produced with striped bass in mind, not to mention all the advertising revenue such companies produce. And all the restaurants and hotels in towns such as Montauk? It’s only a matter of time before people stop making such trips. Without an abundant and accessible striped bass resource you’ll lose the surfcasters and the light-tackle fleet. Montauk would likely be a virtual ghost town after Labor Day.

While there’s been plenty of talk about the loss of income to the commercial and the party/charter boat fleet if they have to endure a reduction in harvest, there has been very little talk about the loss of income a depleted stock has and will continue to have on the larger front. Managers need to understand that striped bass abundance has become so, so important to the recreational fishing community and the economy it supports.

All this said, I am aware of the fact that technically striped bass is not overfished. The Dec 2013 update showed that Spawning Stock Biomass was just above the overfished threshold. Yet, it also stated that there is a 46% probability that we were below that threshold. In other words—not quite 50-50—that the stock was already overfished in 2012. If that was the case, where are we likely to be now? I’d say there’s a really darn good chance the stock was indeed technically overfished in 2013/2014. In fact I’m pretty sure of it.

Given the probability of error in the science the Commission uses, and given what I and just about every other guide and angler have seen out there on the water, I’d say the striped bass stock has been “overfished” for a while. Regardless, projections show that both fishing mortality and SSB thresholds could be exceed as early as this year, and almost certainly next year. Thus it would seem that there is a requirement to significantly reduce fishing mortality now.

That said, I am aware that fishing mortality is not the only, or even the primary reason for the decline. I understand that we’ve had almost a decade of average to well-below average Chesapeake Young-of-the-Year indices, with the notable exception of 2011. However, why we’d even consider not reducing fishing mortality significantly, when there are simply less fish around, whatever the reason, is beyond reason. Fishing mortality certainly has more of an impact on a depleted stock. It is the only thing managers can control, and they have an obligation as stewards of a public resource to control it.

In regards to the 2011s: Do we put all our chips down on the phantom 2011 year class? I’ve seen a few of those fish, but not many. Assuming most haven’t made it out of the Chesapeake yet, you certainly don’t hear too many of the Chesapeake guides talking about them. It seems like a risky bet, but that is indeed what some managers seem to be suggesting. If anything, we should be doing everything in our power to protect the 2011s.

I am greatly concerned about striped bass. Not just because I built my life around it and a substantial portion of my income depends on it, but because of my 5 year old twins. They have yet to catch a striped bass, because it’s darn hard to catch a striped bass these days. I’d like to consider myself a pretty experienced striped bass guide, so it’s pathetic that I can’t put my own kids on a few stripers. I would note that I can easy put them on federally managed species like summer flounder and bluefish.

And I suspect that striped bass might be managed with a lot more caution were they managed under federal law.

I DON’T wanna be that old guy telling my kids how great the striped bass fishery used to be. And I don’t believe I have to be. With that said, below are the options I support. It’s probably no surprise that they are the most conservative options.   And I should note here that all of these options have only a 50% (read “coin toss”) chance of meeting the mortality reduction goal.

Regarding Section 2.5.1 Coastwide Reference Point Options, I don’t know why we’d even be considering not using the most recent and up to date science, so of course I support Option B: Using the new 2013 Benchmark Assessment reference points.

Regarding Section 2.5.2 Chesapeake Bay Stock Reference Point Options: Historically, because the Chesapeake fishery exploited smaller fish, they fished under a lower fishing mortality reference point, than did fishermen on the coast. Option A would reverse that relationship, and permit Chesapeake fishermen to exceed the overfishing threshold in the latest stock assessment. Thus, I support Option B: Using coastwide fishing mortality reference points as established in section 2.5.1.

In regard to Section 2.6 Timeline to Reduce F to the Target: Option A would require the reduction to occur all at once in the 2015 fishing year.   Option B would allow a smaller reduction to be imposed over 3 years. We’ve had enough delay up to this point. Managers need to understand that there is a cost to such delay, especially for guys like me. The reduction to meet the target needs to be done all in one year. And of course Amendment 6 requires that it be done in one year, thus I support Option A.

Regarding Section 3.0 Proposed Management Program: Not only does this deal with whether or not we do the reduction in one or three years, but it breaks it down into specifics on how we’d do that reduction. I support Option B which requires a full 25% harvest reduction to take place next year.

Options C and D achieve the reduction over the course of 3 years.   The three year options are simply not viable in my mind. Just more delay, from a management entity that has developed a reputation for delay.

The rest of this section goes on to specifics, i.e. bag and size limits. Of course this all depends on whether or not the Commission choses option A, B, C or D, so I’m not going go into them all. However, assuming the Commission does the right thing and chooses Option B, requiring the full 25% reduction to be taken in 2015, I support Option B3 – a one fish bag limit and a 32” size limit. This is the most conservative and most precautionary option.

For the Chesapeake Bay Management Areas I support most conservative option here also, which appears to be Option B 15 which sets a hard quota, and states set size and bag limits.

In regard to Commercial Fishery Management Options. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be a good option here, as the Management Board voted to remove what was really the right option – a 25% reduction from the actual commercial catch, which would subject the commercial fishery to the same standard being imposed on anglers and for-hirers.

Option B16 or B17 won’t necessarily achieve the needed reduction, but it’s of course better than nothing. I do not really have a preferred option here.

Lastly, regarding Section 3.1 Commercial Quota Transfers: Option A is Status quo, no commercial quota transfers. Option B: allows Commercial quota transfer between states. The purpose and goal of Addendum 4 is to reduce fishing mortality on striped bass. Option B would allow all those fish that aren’t killed in NC because they stayed in the EEZ to be transferred to other states and killed there. This will not reduce fishing mortality, but will most likely increase it. Thus I support Option A, status quo, no commercial transfer.

In closing… I understand that there are competing interests, and I understand that there are stakeholders who can and will do fine fishing on a depleted striped bass stock. Commercial fishermen will almost always meet their quota whether there are a lot of fish around or not, and some of the party/charter fleet, fishing in very specific areas, will always be able to catch fish trolling wire, drifting eels etc. Yet, your average-Joe angler, your surfcaster, your light tackle enthusiasts… We all need abundance!

Shouldn’t this resource be managed for the greater public good instead of special interests? Shouldn’t it be managed for abundance/opportunity, and not simply managed for the most dead fish you can get out of a stock? So more of the public can have access to it? And perhaps so it can generate the most economic benefit? I think it should.

Managers need to understand the value of an abundant striped bass resource. Both the intrinsic value to us as human beings of having a healthy supply of striped bass in the water, but also the far reaching economic value that comes with abundance and opportunity. Put simply, the more fish that are in the water, the more people will fish, and the better related business like mine will do.

 

Sincerely,

John McMurray

Captain John McMurray
One More Cast Charters, Inc.

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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.

Posted in Conservation
6 comments on “An Open Letter to the ASMFC on Striped Bass
  1. avatar Eric Wallace says:

    great work John!!!!!

  2. avatar John P says:

    Great perspective on the striped bass fishery.
    I agree with what you support
    Most folks don’t make the connection with the impact on local business
    I concur that it is much harder to catch the bass now
    Either from the surf or boat
    I would like to leave a legacy for our 4 grandsons: 8,6,3,1 that fishing is a wholesome and challenging sport and is a delicate balance of nature and conservation that has to be intelligently managed.
    I have been fishing salt and fresh water for over 55 years.

  3. avatar John Barrett says:

    With his experience and time on the water I would have to agree with his recommendations.
    I am a kayak flyfisher and my experience of lack of fish in inshore waters parallels his.
    Early in the summer I had a weekend of fishing with three separate outings over two days. I paddled 17 miles and caught and released exactly 1 twelve inch striper

  4. avatar Joe Vukas says:

    “We all need abundance”! and thats the key! Until they agree to kill less fish and soon, we’re in for a bad bad stretch. My last three years flats fishing on the north fork of long island have been real slow…(had to do more spinfishing as fly fishing is too ‘challenging’ now) but the charter captains at Orient Point see different, because they fish different. Glad you made those points clear. We may have competing interests with those captains but we all need abundance. I usually make 6-7 huge orders from various flyfishing suppliers and tackle sites…and this year I only needed one. all those businesses will suffer and more importantly..future fisherman will suffer. Good Words John..keep it up.

  5. avatar Phil Simon says:

    Nicely put! I agree with your positions and rationale, although myself I would like to see an upper size limit to protect the big girls. But the recreational fishing community needs to begin to become more of an environmental community as well. This is because our fish nurseries are dying, especially the Chesapeake, due to nutrient load and the resulting algal blooms. Add in the menhaden issue, and you wonder how any juvenile striped bass can make it into the seine nets of the Young of the Year surveys. It’s a big and expensive issue, with lots of resistance from the businesses that would loose money if we really tried to clean up the watersheds. But we need to increase the awareness and support for cleaning up the coastal estuaries from the entire fishing community, even the commercial part.

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