A case can be made, but it’s not the one we’re making
In my Aug 8th blog The Straight Dope on Striped Bass I mentioned “Assuming striped bass continues to decline, there is a rationale for gamefish, but thus far the angling community hasn’t picked up on it. I don’t really have the space to fully explain this here but will certainly do so in a future blog.” So… Let me do that now. If you haven’t read the above referenced blog, stop right here! Read it, then continue.
Let me be clear that on its face, gamefish doesn’t appear to be about conservation. It’s about a reallocation of a public resource. Again, on its face, it’s a policy decision, not a conservation one.
There was a comment following the blog along the lines that, according to my rationale, we should reopen market hunting for terrestrial game. Sounds silly, and it would be. But it is true that as long as total mortality is controlled, such populations would remain healthy. A dead duck is a dead-duck, likewise, a dead fish is a dead fish, regardless of who killed it. It matters little where the mortality comes from, it’s still mortality. As Charlie Witek pointed out in the comments section, wildlife managers simply chose broad public access over commercialization. It’s important to point out that this was not a decision mandated by biological imperatives. It was a policy decision on how to allocate limited resources. They chose the greater public rather than a few guys still trying to make a buck off of it.
Managers obviously haven’t done that with striped bass, and I don’t disagree that they should. I think decommercialization could achieve a number of objectives, yet I also feel like the entire striped bass gamefish issue has blinded people to the total fishing mortality issue, often to the extent that people can talk about killing smaller slot fish for dinner and then promote conservation in the same breath, while few notice that they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth.
If the true motivation is conservation, and I believe that at least with most gamefish advocates that’s the case, they could avoid a lot of grief by being very clear in their “conservation” goals. In other words, stop talking about killing small fish, either by reducing the minimum size or creating a slot limit, and shift the conversation toward reducing fishing mortality. Decommercializing the fishery may actually be a good way to do that but no one is taking that track, and frankly, I’m not sure they should be right now. I’ll explain this later.
I do believe that once we get the 2013 Benchmark assessment, reducing mortality, particularly on older fish, will quickly become a management goal. And, while the “fairness” issue still exists, decommercialization of striped bass is a realistic means to achieve it, particularly since decreasing recreational harvest is likely to lead to increased catch-and-release mortality. (Again I want to note here that in 2006, when the recreational fishery peaked, the number of fish killed as recreational discard mortality was double the total commercial catch).
However, such action would only be justifiable if the former commercial harvest is used as a buffer of sorts, to increase the population, and not merely transferred to recreational landings, as was the case in New Jersey when they went the gamefish route. I’m certainly not bashing Jersey. The fact is that, given the amount of fish they took from commercials and gave to anglers, only a small portion are actually killed pursuant to their 3rd “bonus program” fish, which I believe was suspended anyway last summer. So in reality, there is indeed a conservation benefit there. Of course that doesn’t translate to decision-makers who see only an unfair reallocation, perpetuated by a movement that, instead of promoting the conservation buffer idea, talks about killing a smaller fish. Certainly they get an earful about it from commercial striped bass fishermen in their states.
Getting back on point, decommercialization could indeed eliminate some bycatch-prone commercial gear such as gillnets and would stop the practice of discarding smaller, dead fish in favor of larger ones (“highgrading”) in order to maximize profit. (While I hate to say it, that sort of thing happens on charter/party boats as well.) Regardless, making striped bass a gamefish would likely quell the rampant illegal harvest along the coast. Sure there would still be some poaching, but certainly not to the extent that it has existed in the last two decades, since the profit motive would be eliminated.
And then there is the economic argument. It’s pretty well established that anglers create quite a bit more economic activity than commercial striped bass fishermen. That’s been demonstrated in more than one academic study, and the argument that we deserve more fish, if not a total allocation, as a result has certainly been made. Yet, having spent the last five years on one of the regional fisheries management bodies, I can say with certainly that managers simply don’t do allocation based on economic value of the fishery. If that were the case, just about every dual-component fishery would have had all the fishery resources, except perhaps mackerel, tilefish and bluefin tuna, over to the recreational side. The economic value of those fisheries are heavily weighted to the commercial side; thus we probably would lose them all together if NMFS were to base allocation on economic impact. Several years ago, Stripers Forever retained Southwick Associates to prepare an economic study of the fishery, which unsurprisingly determined that economic activity generated by striped bass anglers was, I think, 26 times greater than that produced by the commercial fishery. But it mattered little. The ASMFC Committee on Economics and Social Sciences reviewed the study, then rejected it in its entirety. About a decade ago, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science also produced a study which concluded that allocating the entire striped bass harvest to anglers would yield the best economic result. It, too, was ignored.
That said, one could certainly argue that decommercialization is valuable not because it will permit a bigger recreational kill, but because it is a reasonable way to reduce overall striped bass mortality, increase the spawning stock, better assure the long-term health of the striped bass fishery and better represent the long term interests of the general public. However, simply reallocating the resource without reducing overall mortality fails to achieve any of those goals. The fact that the gamefish advocates haven’t tried to quell the “more fish for me” impression has really harmed anglers’ credibility with fishery managers and it has dealt commercial interests a winning hand
Several years ago, Stripers Forever President Brad Burns told me “If the striped bass were a personal-use-only species, the values of recreational fisherman would control its fate… Sure, a few would be eaten, but a healthy stock and high-quality fishing experience would be the primary values.” I think he’s right about that when we talk about fly fishermen and even a lot of the surfcasting community, but when you start to look at the party boats and the six-pack charters, along with a significant segment of the private boat community, a lot of bass are being killed. In those venues, conservation-minded sportsmen can be pretty thin on the ground.
First, Striped bass must be managed in a way that makes biological sense. Once that is achieved, like terrestrial game, bass should be managed in a way that brings the greatest overall benefit to the general public. Permitting the continued commercial exploitation of striped bass doesn’t really appear to achieve that objective. But, we have to keep in mind that this is a historical and culturally significant commercial fishery. We can’t expect it to just go away.
Unfortunately, a lot of anglers do think we can just make commercial fishermen disappear. Such people are still living in the “us vs. them” age. As I indicated in my Straight Dope column, I get it. It’s irritating to see one guy kill lots of fish 20 or so yards away from where you are releasing them all. But at a point in time so critical to the striped bass population, when we have a chance to convince managers to do the right thing, we’ve got to realize that it’s not about what is best for me, it’s about what’s best for the resource (although in the long run that’s usually the same thing).
So, while I do believe gamefish could have benefits for the stock, assuming the fish that had been harvested commercially were all maintained as a conservation buffer and not reallocated to anglers, I also believe that decommercializing striped bass is politically impossible at this time. Yet, since chasing that impossible goal tends to blind people to the total mortality issue, I can’t say I’m a big advocate anymore. There are other more important things on the table.
I’ll say it one more time, then I’ll shut up about bass, at least until we get the results of the benchmark: as a community greatly concerned with the future of this precious natural resource, we need to put the blinders on and focus solely on reducing fishing mortality. Clamoring about gamefish, slot limits etc., isn’t doing us any favors. There may be a time when there is an opportunity to achieve decommercialization, but that time is not now. Distracting ourselves from the most important goal of reducing mortality is likely to hurt the bass—and us—in the end.