On Striped Bass and H.R. 4742

Striped bass is a good example of why the Hastings Bill is just bad

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

I’ve been writing about striped bass an awful lot lately. Because, in case it isn’t really clear at this point, it’s pretty damn important to me as well as most readers of this blog. I know this true because any time I discuss striped bass the number of page views far exceeds all the other posts. But this is bigger than just striped bass, as the future of our federally managed fisheries lies in the balance. I will explain.

I’m pretty sure you are all aware, but just to frame things, there’s been a precipitous downward spiral in the striped bass fishery in the last few years. And this year’s spring run has been virtually nonexistent in a lot of places. Businesses are suffering, mine being a pretty good example of that. Perhaps more importantly, the mental health of a lot of hard-core striped bass anglers is suffering. Yeah, I’m probably a prime example here also.

Yes, I saw those aerial photos of large schools of striped bass off Cape Cod. But it’s not where the fish are. It’s where they aren’t. It’s a pretty well-known fact among biologists that as stocks decline they contract. While there still may be strongholds and dense bodies of fish, the geographic distribution becomes more restricted. We saw this in Maine at the beginning of the decline. Now we have a definitive lack of fish pretty much everywhere save a few spots where the fish might show up (e.g., those aerial photos from Cape Cod). While I’ve made this point before, I thought it was worthy of making it again given the viral distribution of those photos and the tendency of people to think, “Well, that’s where all the fish are.” Like I said, it’s where they aren’t that matters.

Moving on, two posts ago, I wrote about how frustrating it was that the interstate consortium that manages the striped bass resource, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, continues to delay making critical decisions on reducing fishing mortality or even accepting the best available science and new reference points contained in the new stock assessment. You can read that post here: With striped bass, another (expletive)-show @ ASMFC. The end point was that the ASMFC can delay or simply avoid making tough decisions. That sort of thing may benefit a few special interests in the short term, but it really screws anglers like us and businesses like mine who depend on abundance.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

The ASMFC consistently does this because it is under a lot of pressure from those loud, special interest stakeholders to maximize harvest – and because it doesn’t have to comply with federal law (the Magnuson Stevens Act), which makes giving in to those loud voices easy. Magnuson requires managers, among other things, to heed and use the “best available science” and end overfishing as soon as possible (not to mention it requires stocks be fully rebuilt in the shortest amount of time possible or 10 years); the ASMFC doesn’t have to do those things, so it often doesn’t.

In the case of striped bass, the best available science is the new benchmark stock assessment, which was presented to the ASMFC several meetings ago. The assessment contained new “overfishing” and new “overfished” reference points. Projections indicate that we will likely be overfishing (and the stock is likely to be “overfished”) as early as this year. The commission had the opportunity to act expeditiously to avoid such a situation, but it did not. Instead commissioners voted to delay putting an addendum out to the public, which is strange, as this is simply the best available science regarding the status of the stock. I’m not sure what the public could add to that or why the ASMFC requires an addendum at all. The science is the science.

If striped bass were managed under federal law, I suspect there would have been some discussion on the stock assessment, but managers would have had to accept it and its new reference points as the best available science. Furthermore, if it was projected that we may be overfishing this year and that the stock would be overfished, federal law would require managers to take some action to avoid that situation. This is not the case with the ASMFC. It can legally avoid taking action, for, um, as long as it wants to.

Enter H.R. 4742. Several posts ago I discussed the reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act, specifically the House Natural Resources Committee “discussion document” put out by Rep. Doc Hastings. I went into some detail regarding why the proposal is terrible for recreational fishermen. You can read that here: Why the Hastings reauthorization bill just sucks.

Well, a couple of weeks ago the House Natural Resources Committee did its markup and put out its final version for consideration by the entire House. The bill is called “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.” It would be entirely appropriate to add “at the expense of recreational fishermen” to the title.

There were a few changes made during the markup – some good, some bad. No use going into details here, as I’ve found that when I do that, readers jump ship pretty quick. But it’s worth pointing out that, for one, the three-year phase-in for rebuilding plans, which would have resulted in five years of sanctioned overfishing before councils had to take management action to fix the problem, was removed. That is good, but it probably matters little as the laundry list of exemptions to the 10-year rebuilding requirement remains intact.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

What such exemptions mean is that managers could avoid rebuilding federally managed stocks by using one of the many excuses laid out in the document. For example, they could claim that the cause of depletion is outside the federal government’s jurisdiction (e.g., overfishing in state waters or international waters, climate change, inshore habitat etc.). Under this bill anything really could and would be used as an excuse for inaction. And there essentially wouldn’t be any legal mandate at all to fully rebuild a stock. If you think managers wouldn’t take full advantage of such exemptions, well then you’ve probably never been to a council or commission meeting.

The point is that all this bill does really is allow the feds/councils to act like the ASMFC. In other words, continued delay, willfully overfishing, avoiding rebuilding etc., as long as they can come up with an excuse, whether legitimate or not, to do that (e.g., climate change, habitat, cyclical nature of things, will hurt industry too much … all the things you regularly hear at ASMFC meetings).

I urge you to take a look at the status of ASMFC-managed stocks. Nothing is doing well, save summer flounder (fluke), black seabass and scup (porgy), and, well, that’s only because those are species that are jointly managed with the feds/councils, which of course have statutory requirements to rebuild stocks within 10 years. Oh, and, um, striped bass is still technically OK, too, but we all know where that’s going.

Plain as day, with striped bass we’re seeing firsthand what the proposals in the Hastings bill would do to our federally managed species. If you’ve ever listened in on an ASMFC meeting, it’s maddening. It is a constant litany of excuses to avoid taking action. Yes there is climate change, loss of habitat, etc. … But why it’s happening shouldn’t matter! It’s just stupid allow profit-focused fishermen (both recreational and commercial) to pound on depleted stocks. Yes, non-fishing stressors can make stocks less resilient. But if managers don’t control overfishing, which is the only thing they can directly control, stocks will never rebuild!

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that during my last two outings, while unsuccessfully targeting striped bass, we caught several dozen bluefish up to 15 pounds, a few summer flounder (including a giant 8-pounder) and several black seabass, one of which was an absolutely beautiful estimated 6-pound fish, which of course went promptly back in the water. All of these stocks are fully rebuilt and, both anecdotally and on paper, are abundant. And that, my friends, is exclusively because they are managed under federal law, which requires them to be rebuilt.

As regular readers of this column know, I’m pissed off about what’s happened with the striped bass fishery and the inability of commissions to act promptly. I should note that, yes, there are commissioners who have voted and advocated for a prompt reduction in fishing mortality, mostly from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. While they deserve some credit here, IMO they haven’t fought hard enough. While there have been some encouraging comments from those folks, what I’m mostly seeing is a reluctant acquiescence to delay. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough for me … for us.

Yes, the commission still claims it will act by the 2015 fishing year. But given the discussion at the last two meetings, I’m not terribly confident that will happen. And if it does, I suspect what we’ll get are watered-down measures, instead of the prompt, 30-percent reduction the technical committee is recommending. Who knows, really. I hope I’m wrong. But I don’t think I am, because the ASMFC doesn’t legally have to do the right thing. And history has shown that most of the time it doesn’t. Do we really want to see that in our federally managed stocks? Because if the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act” should ever become law in its current form (note: for better or worse, I suspect the bill is so bad that it will not) then that’s exactly what we can expect.

The point of all of this blather is that the Hastings bill just sucks … in so many ways. It will set us back two decades and reverse just about all of the hard-earned fisheries management success stories. It will be the complete de-evolution of fishery management, putting us back to the days where overfishing was the norm and there were a lot more overfished stocks than rebuilt ones. We’ve come a long way since then. The number of federally managed stocks that are rebuilt greatly outnumbers the overfished ones. The sort of abundance it’s created with summer flounder, black seabass, scup and ehm, bluefish is real. I see it on the water every day. Without bluefish and fluke, right now I’d be dead in the water (pun intended).

I urge you to contact your House representative to let him or her know that you oppose the rebuilding exceptions in H.R.4742.

Now, and perhaps this is fodder for another blog, but here’s what I’d really like to see in the Magnuson reauthorization, although to date it hasn’t been put on the table. Why, I don’t really know.

The Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which set up the interstate management entity that is the ASMFC, gets reauthorized with Magnuson Stevens Act. So why aren’t we talking about amending this part of the act in this next reauthorization, creating a requirement that the ASMFC has to comply with federal rebuilding mandates?

That would likely turn things around quickly at the ASMFC. It would be huge man. Commissioners would be forced to act quickly with striped bass and other species they manage. There would finally be real accountability. I’d like to hear what readers think about this, … So please do weigh in.

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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.

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One comment on “On Striped Bass and H.R. 4742
  1. Amen (again) John.

    I am personally outraged and befuddled as to how anyone who has seen the decline, and if you fish, buy fish, read about fish or ask anyone about fish, you most certainly have as well, cannot be freaked out beyond belief.

    Is sane Striped Bass management such a frightening issue to the large majority ?

    Or are we just so lame and indifferent so as to assume that “someone else” who knows and cares enough will do it for us ?

    Quite obviously that is NOT happening, and while this analogy is going to anger many readers, much like continued shooting rampages in the wakes of immense tragedies ,we cannot complain when the bass are gone if we choose to do nothing.

    I consider myself a decent advocate for sustainable fisheries thus far, but realize now that there is more we all can do.

    Keep up the good work, and do count me in wherever and whenever i can be of help

    Kerry Heffernan

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  1. […] Fishery Management Council member and charter boat captain John McMurray wrote a blog for Reel-Time.com on how striped bass is a good example of the problems with the Doc Hastings Magnuson-Stevens […]

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