Why managers make the decisions they make, and why personal conservation choices are increasingly important
I’m going to start here by talking about Maryland DNR’s imprudent decision to implement a 14% increase in striped bass harvest. Certainly I can burn a few thousand words here discussing the details, but there are already a few really good columns on that subject. I think Shawn Kimbro says it best here and here. But I suspect, if you’re reading this blog, you already know the deal.
The short version is that despite the now well-documented declining striped bass stock, several years of poor young-of-the-year indices (in other words, lack of juvenile fish), and a clear indication that we will be overfishing as early as next year and that such overfishing will continue into 2017 if we don’t reduce fishing mortality soon, MD DNR decided now was a good time to increase harvest. They did this full well knowing that there would likely be a mandated reduction in 2015.
The decision was based on an abundance of fish (the anomalous 2011 year class) that should recruit into the Chesapeake Bay “producer area” fishery in 2014. However annoying it may be, “producer areas” like the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River have an 18” size limit (the rationale of which I certainly don’t agree with, but that’s an entirely different blog).
Moving on, yes, we did have one good year class – 2011 – amongst a bunch of poor production years. Aside from 2011, 2003 was really our last good year. So, Maryland wants to exploit this 2011 year class as those fish will supposedly be 18” by this spring. The rationale was that without any changes to the season, bag and size limit, catch rates would simply be higher due to the increase in availability of those 18” fish, and the increase was well within the allowable range under the current plan.
Yes, under the old stock assessment this might have been okay, but under the new stock assessment, which was adopted a little over a month ago, and which includes new more conservative reference points, it is in no way biologically justifiable. The new stock assessment (based on an updated model/better science) sets the overfishing target well below the current Chesapeake target, so the Maryland harvest number now represents a significant degree of overfishing. Given the current apparent importance of the 2011s to the stock’s future, this is anything but insignificant (as the MN DNR response seems to indicate).
It certainly seems like Maryland is trying to grab what it can grab under the old plan, while the 2011 cohort is still in the bay, at the risk of diminishing the only good cohort we’ve had since 2003, before those fish move out of the Chesapeake and become part of the coastal stock. So yes, I have to believe they are trying to give their fishermen one more big kill before the new addendums based on the new stock assessment kick in. Not cool… but really, this isn’t all that surprising to me.
To most of us it’s intuitive that if you get one good year-class amongst a bunch of poor ones, and given the declining stock (which almost no one denies at this point), ya might want to protect it, rather than provide rationale to exploit it as it comes of age, regardless of whether you can justify it. Yet, having worked with state managers for several years now, I can say with some certainty that, for the most part, this is not how most of them think. If they can find a way increase harvest, then generally they will. In most states they simply aren’t given the leeway to do otherwise, particularly since there are so many other stocks that fishermen now can’t catch in the numbers they used to, because, well… because they overfished them. Remember that, in many fisheries, there are also new, justifiably tighter federal regulations mandated by the Magnuson Stevenson Act which provide firm rebuilding goals and deadlines, as well as real accountability measures to insure the goals are met. And we have to keep in mind that there is indeed both grassroots (from the commercials and pro-harvest recreational fishing industry) and grasstop (politicians and other decision-makers) pressure to take more fish.
While you and I, and a growing number of anglers, want to see a reduction in fishing mortality now, there’s a commercial fishing fleet as well as a loud “small-business” recreational industry (generally party/charter boats and a part of the tackle industry that caters to, ehm, “meat fishermen”) asking for more fish, so that their businesses “survive”. These are really the same people whom I referenced in my AND WE CONTINUE DOWN THAT ROAD blog, who, to their own detriment, built their business model around killing as many fish as possible, conditioning their customers to believe that their goal should be a “striped bass slaughter” and the boat being “limited out.” That of course paints them into a very small corner when the number of people living near the coast is increasing rapidly, and the stresses on all fish, including striped bass, are increasing as a result. Still, we have to acknowledge that “small businesses” such as commercial fishing and party boats are historically, culturally and economically significant, and both industries are considered critical parts of water front communities. And insuring small business stay in business is always a priority for any state.
Stripers Forever seems to think that if we were to make striped bass a gamefish then all this lack of precaution/pro-harvest sentiment amongst state managers would simply go away. Maybe they are right, but I can’t bring myself to buy into that, however much I want to. There are still a ton of “meat” fishermen out there, and the part of the party-charter fleet that is pro-harvest (those same ones who market, “getting on the meat”, “limiting out” etc.) doesn’t seem to be diminishing. Regardless, I can’t help but think it’s irrelevant, given the political impossibility of getting gamefish right now, for myriad of reasons I simply don’t have the space to detail here.
Getting back on point, state managers are indeed prone to maximize harvest to “support” the fishing communities in their state, and the MD DNR instance is a good example of that. This would likely be the case at the federal level also, if we didn’t have the Magnuson Stevenson Act with its rebuilding goals and time limits guiding Council decisions. Keep in mind that state/ASMFC managed fisheries don’t have to comply with Federal fisheries management law, and so the management of state-managed fish is generally far less conservative. That’s why I’m often confused by the push by some national organizations to transfer some federally managed fish into state management, or simply replace some of the most important Magnuson Act provisions with a striped bass model. Do we really want that? Two decades of ASMFC management shows pretty clearly that precaution is not really a Commission priority.
Of course I’m of the opinion that managing a stock conservatively, especially in the case of striped bass during their clear downturn, is the best way to assure that those fishing communities that state managers are so concerned about are still here 10 or 20 years down the road. But that’s just my opinion, and generally not one not shared by most state managers who are worried about what’s going to happen to these fleets now. Aand I get that… but I do think it’s a short-sighted position. Political positions usually are.
In short, I think you get the picture. If managers can find a way to liberalize regulations, or avoid any belt tightening for an industry that is already financially stressed given all the other stocks they overfished (and/or by tighter federal regulations) and just by a poor economy in general, well then usually they will do it. In fact, I’d be kinda surprised if MD DNR didn’t want that increase. And to the DNR’s credit, 14% was fairly conservative. They could have gone higher. Still, in my opinion, they didn’t need to do it, and come on man… We really need to protect that 2011 year class instead of exploit it, as it’s the only good one we’ve had since 2003.
I certainly don’t blame state managers, nor do I think they are irresponsible people (although yes, some precautionary foresight would be nice). They are simply doing their jobs as they deem appropriate. So, I really doubt that such managers will ever try to change such pro-harvest sentiment. In other words, given the pressures they are currently under, most of the state managers will always try and maximize harvest to the extent they can justify it, no matter what the species. So long as a vocal segment of the public clings to the old view that any fish which dies of old age is wasted, there will be just too much pressure from both the grassroots and the grasstops for to maximize the kill.
And while I really hate to say it, if anything it will likely get worse in the future, as more politicians seem to embrace anti-regulation/pro-business sentiments. In that same respect there is a lot of pressure to weaken federal fisheries management law (Magnuson-Stevenson Act) by adding more “flexibility” right now, and the public sentiment, as well as the political rhetoric certainly appears to be going the wrong way on this one (See IF IT AIN’T BROKE). And with striped bass, while I think there will be some reduction in mortality by 2015, it likely won’t be enough to stem the decline. I do hope I’m wrong about that… but ASMFC is notorious for doing too little, too late.
What’s the solution? Well, there may not really be one, at least not one provided by the managers. Which is why, especially in the case of striped bass, I believe personal conservation choices are becoming ever more important. Without a doubt, there is a huge part of this fishery, perhaps even the majority now, who values this fish for its sporting qualities and the opportunities it provides, rather than simply for providing “meat”. I’m talking about us folks who release most of what we catch.
So, I am really encouraged by this “1@32 Pledge”. It’s a pledge to only take one striped bass per day at no less than 32″. That probably doesn’t go as far as I’d like it do, but it’s something that I think is generally acceptable to a lot of anglers. And I think with the sort of mass-marketing that’s available today (with social media etc.) it could really catch on to a point where it’s quite significant in the broader picture. It’s a darn good example of a personal conservation choice that could really make a difference.
Yes, in the past I’ve been pessimistic about such personal conservation choices for a number of reasons (which I will detail next week), but given the current situation, I’m beginning to come around. At any rate, I’m running out of space here, but I want to base an entire blog (hopefully next week) on this movement and personal conservation choices in general. So, stay tuned!