As the stock continues its downward spiral it’s hard to have confidence it will get better any time soon
Admitting this is without a doubt bad for business, but let me be frank: The striped bass fishing so far this spring just sucks. Yes, I’m still able to put guys on fish, and out of the eight trips I’ve done this season I’ve had a handful of “good” days, but it’s been goddamn hard. A lot harder than it used to be. A lot harder than it ever should be.
We can try to blame it on this year’s weather and what appears to just be a “late start.” Yet given the steady downward spiral we’ve seen over the last several years, the later in May it gets the more it becomes apparent that this is pretty much the new “normal”. Even if we are a month behind, we still should be seeing lots more fish. Maybe it will get better, but I dunno man…
There are indeed some isolated bodies of fish around, but there is very little if any consistency anymore. You may find a few fish in a particular spot and be on them for a couple of days, but rarely more than that. Used to be, if you were on ’em, you were on ’em, usually for weeks.
I can already hear some people howling about the small body of fish in Raritan Bay, which everybody and their mothers have been knocking the shit out of. I can’t even bear to go over there anymore. But there simply is not the distribution of fish you would see with a “healthy” stock. Even just a few years ago, when you had good fishing in Raritan, you would also have good fishing from Jamaica Bay to Western Long Island. That’s just not the case anymore. It’s a huge bummer.
I used to hit the alarm clock every morning during the season and hop out of bed with a sense of anticipation because I knew there was a reasonable chance that we would have good action. Most of the time we did. It was an ego boost to effectively and consistently put anglers on fish. They thought I was good. I thought I was good.
Now, when that alarm clock starts buzzing at 3:30 a.m., I have to force myself out of bed. And the stress of putting anglers on fish, anglers who pay me a lot of money to do just that, starts even before I can get caffeine into my veins. It’s just not that fun anymore man. Over the weekend one of my best clients, who sensed the obvious anxiety, suggested I get a prescription for Xanax. I laughed out loud, but perhaps he wasn’t kidding.
I got into this business because, well, because I just loved striped bass fishing. I would have given up anything and everything to do it, and, as my sordid past indicates, a lot of times I did just that. Sounds kind of pathetic, but I built my life around striped bass. Now it’s disappearing before my very eyes… And it f’n hurts, man. All while a couple dozen jokers sit around a table in a stuffy room in Alexandria and make excuses to avoid taking action.
Getting the play by play at last week’s Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission striped bass board meeting via text while I was getting skunked on the water was disheartening. So, let’s talk a little bit about that meeting. While I’ve covered it in other posts, I should provide a just little background here without getting into too much detail.
Last year a new striped stock assessment, using up-to-date data and better science, was peer reviewed and released to the public. In short, it recommended new, lower fishing mortality “reference points.” In other words we should be killing fewer striped bass every year. I know, right? Duh! It also made clear that the “spawning stock biomass” is continuing to decline and that it will almost certainly fall below the threshold that defines an overfished stock – if not this year then certainly the next. (Note: striped bass has not been deemed “overfished” for more than two decades.)
In case you didn’t get that, unless we reduce fishing mortality significantly – like right now – we will likely be “overfishing” and the stock will be “overfished” as soon as this year. Pretty damn clear what the right course of action is right? Not if you’re a commissioner …
Instead of accepting the assessment results and taking action the moment they were presented, ASMFC did its typical bullshit and moved to further analyze (read, delay). It tasked technical folks to write two addenda. The first would simply propose accepting the newer/best available science and the new reference points (e.g., the lower fishing mortality target) presented in the assessment (why the hell they’d need an addendum to do that I don’t know). The second would propose management alternatives that would get us to the required reduction, which appears to be approximately 30 percent by the 2015 fishing year.
So, back to last week’s meeting. These two addenda were finally presented to the commissioners, and there was the usual BS about how such a reduction would be too drastic and would hurt the fishing industry too much. What about my/our industry? It’s unquestionable that the light-tackle industry is beginning to suffer due to a declining striped bass fishery. Not just guides, but also all those manufacturers of 8- and 9-weight flyrods, light spin gear, soft plastics and plugs, as well as those who sell them. I haven’t done the research, but I have to imagine that there are fewer Bass Assassins, Slug-Gos, etc. sold. I know that I’m certainly not making orders like I used to. And the plug manufacturing industry? Those guys really must be taking a hit, because the surf fishing has just sucked for the last couple of years. Surf fishermen are losing access to this fishery very quickly. Ask any surfcaster who made the annual pilgrimage to Montauk last year how it was. Expect a lot of expletives in their response.
Back to the meeting. There was talk about how the decline is just a “trend.” I should note here that it is quite true that the decline is not entirely due to fishing. We’ve had about a decade of average to well-below average spawns in the Chesapeake or, perhaps more accurately, bad conditions for recently spawned striped bass survival (with the exception of one good year class in 2011). From what I understand, it’s been pretty bad in the Hudson also. This is likely climate related. There was a comment at the meeting that reducing fishing mortality isn’t going to bring those poor year classes back. Well, of course it won’t! But it will help protect those weaker year classes by not exposing them to excessive fishing mortality. It just seems like common sense that when the stock is experiencing a downward trend, no matter what the ultimate cause is, you’d want to reduce pressure on it. But that ain’t the way a lot – I believe most – of ASMFC commissioners think.
It’s interesting that there wasn’t really all that much talk of the viable alternatives themselves save the “slot limit” option, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Even then it seemed like the discussion was more about how to game such a limit to maximize harvest rather than making a real good-faith effort to seriously reduce fishing mortality to the point where it might actually make a difference.
What I found most irritating was the motion to achieve the fishing mortality reduction in three years vs. the originally intended one year – in other words, incrementally ratcheting down fishing mortality until the target was achieved in 2017. That is complete crap, man. Just more delay with a fishery that needs decisive action now, before we get into even deeper water and I end up having to sell my boats.
And, as an aside, the striped bass management plan requires managers to end overfishing in just one year. But the ASMFC commissioners apparently ignored that technicality.
We were assured at the last two meetings that they would achieve the fishing mortality reduction in 2015, and a lot of us felt like even this was an unreasonable delay given they could have taken action in time for the 2014 fishing year – before overfishing occurred and before we had an overfished stock.
Of course the motion to drag out the harvest reduction passed and will be considered as an option in the addendum when it goes out to the public (presumably after the August meeting). There were other options that will be added to the document before it goes out to the public, each one a seemingly new and creative way to delay or weaken any real effort to prevent the stock’s further decline. Most of it is difficult to understand stuff that will make your head spin, but trust me on the intent. Reading between the lines, it all looks like more analysis/more delay.
Given the conversation that took place last week, I’m gonna be damned surprised if they agree on anything constructive that will benefit the striped bass stock (not to mention businesses like mine who depend on it) by the 2015 fishing season. These guys couldn’t even agree to use the best available science (e.g., the reference points from the benchmark assessment) without doing a darn addendum and putting it out to public hearing first. By the way, they were supposed to do this back in February (see At ASMFC Last Week, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly) but then had some sort of convoluted conversation about how it should be put off until this meeting (last week). Yet they still didn’t agree to put it out to public comment! Seriously man… it would be funny if it wasn’t so F’n infuriating! Maybe they will put it out in August, but at this point, delay seems to be the best way to maintain the status quo and allow overfishing. Sad, but I’m afraid it’s true.
Of course, striped bass, or any species that the ASMFC manages, isn’t bound by the same sort of firm rebuilding goals and deadlines (specified in the Magnuson Stevens Act) that federally managed species have to comply with. If they were, the best available science (aka the new reference points) would have been accepted as such without question. Regulations that would achieve a 30 percent reduction and prevent overfishing and an overfished stock would have been promptly put in place, certainly by the 2014 fishing year.
But that’s obviously not happening now, precisely because the ASMFC has the “flexibility” to delay, delay, delay. And that’s exactly what they do. As a result, the great majority of stocks they manage are in pretty bad shape.
So why are parts of the recreational fishing community asking for that sort of flexibility in managing federal stocks!? Yeah, yeah… I’m not gonna harp on that again, as I’ve done it in post after post, but it really is ridiculous, especially since the recreational sector benefits from the sort of abundance that comes from rebuilt stocks. Instead there are people out there who are willing to piss it all away over stupid red snapper, which only a small fraction of anglers fish for anyway.
At any rate, striped bass continues to tank, and I’m pretty damn sure that all these substandard trips I’m running, along with the ever increasing skunkings, is gonna crush businesses like mine. Meanwhile the national “conservation” organizations that claim to represent recreational fishermen promote “flexibility,” which sells guys like you and me down the river so narrow special interests can benefit. It’s pretty goddamn depressing. Maybe I should add Prozac to the Xanax prescription.
Yeah, I know this is somewhat of a rant (if you want a more rational description of what’s going on I suggest Reading Charlie Witek’s blog: ASMFC Shows Us Why Even Striped Bass Should Not “Be Managed Like Striped Bass”). But I’m tired and disappointed. At the fishing, at the managers, at ASMFC, which is supposed to represent the best interests of the public but which so obviously doesn’t, at those recreational fishing organizations that used to be the “good guys” who seem to now be dumb enough to promote just the sort of flexibility that is messing up my striped bass fishery. (Note: It’s kinda funny that they are using striped bass as an example of successful management, which should tell you that they just don’t know what the hell they are talking about.) I’m tired and disappointed at myself for not just canceling my charters and going down there last week to at least try and convince some of those people that this decline is real and that it’s affecting a lot of people, like me. Something must be done … soon. And it can’t be a half measure. I’m gonna do my best to make it to the August meeting. Stay tuned..
In the meantime, please call or email your commissioners. Insist that they stop dillydallying and making excuses for delay. You can find their contact info here: ASMFC commissioners.