Where We are With Striped Bass

ASMFC moves ahead with an addendum to reduce fishing mortality, but getting the cuts we need will not be easy.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

This is, I dunno, part 10 or something in my disjointed series on the decline of the striped bass resource and what the Atlantic States Fisheries Management Commission (ASFMC, or the consortium of states that manages striped bass) is going to do about it.

Yes, I write about striped bass a lot, and I do hope readers aren’t rolling their eyes right now. But, I can see which blogs drive traffic. And if I so much as mention striped bass in the title, the number of readers goes through the roof. So I really don’t think so. The point is, striped bass “is” (or crap, maybe I should start saying, “used to be”) really, really important to me… to just about all of us that fish in this region really. I’m not gonna get into why, because I’ve already waxed a few times about how that stupid fish has actually driven my life up to this point. How my business depends upon it, etc. So I’ll spare you that part this time. What I’d like to do this week is to bring readers up to speed on the good, the bad and the ugly on where we are as of last week’s ASMFC meeting.

Yes, the ASMFC Striped Bass Board did meet last Tuesday to discuss (read: add and remove options) to an Addendum to the management plan which is intended to reduce fishing mortality on striped bass. If you haven’t been reading my other blogs, the really short version is that striped bass numbers have declined precipitously over the last eight or so years. Of course if you fish, you already know that. But it’s a fact that we’ve currently exceeded some of the management “targets” that are supposed to require prompt action. Yes, it’s taken a long time to get to the point where we are beginning to see any glimmer of light, but Addendum IV is indeed a “light” of some sort. Even the most precautionary option may not be, and probably isn’t enough (I’ll get to that later) but there will most likely be some action in 2015.

So, last week, after some debate, ASMFC voted out a Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass for Public Comment. It includes a bunch of options to reduce harvest along the coast and in the Chesapeake Bay. Some are good, others, not so good.

But before I get to that, let’s talk about Maryland and Virginia because they are really beginning to annoy me. Those two states have been working really hard to water down/chip away at the Addendum, and to some extent they’ve been successful. Through various letters and of course the public record, it’s become very clear that they don’t appear to want any sort of reduction at all, despite all the anecdotal warning signs, the pleas from the public to do something, and, well, the science.

Lou releases a nice one...photo by Capt. John McMurray

Lou releases a nice one…photo by Capt. John McMurray

I do understand why. They have a very vocal and influential commercial fishing community. And, not surprisingly, there are a handful of really loud charter boat captains that apparently don’t want to have to stop killing lots of fish. I get it… Watermen are suffering down there. Crabs have crashed, although certainly that’s not the fault of “too many” striped bass, as commercials and even some managers may argue. (Note: there is absolutely no science to back up such a contention, and it should be pretty well known by now that those two species have existed together in abundant numbers since, well, since they both first existed.) But hard lessons learned quite recently with cod in New England should show us pretty clearly what happens when you focus on keeping the commercial fishery fishing on a depleted stock.

In short, neither Maryland nor Virginia appears to give a crap about the hundreds of thousands of anglers in their states who depend on abundant striped bass stocks to be successful, not to mention all the businesses that depend on those anglers. Instead, it’s all about the short term economic gain the Baymen and charter-boats can reap before the stock completely collapses. And I know there are still people who keep saying that the sky isn’t falling. But these are not the people who spend any real amount of time on the water. Listen… The sky is f’n falling.

I could go into more detail here about Maryland and Virginia, but fellow blogger Charlie Witek has already done that quite well here: Maryland Seeks to Slow Striped Bass Recovery. Before moving on,I would also quickly note that Maryland and Virginia’s biggest allies are commissioners from (you guessed it) New Jersey, (surprisingly) Rhode Island, and (to some extent, though I hate to admit it) New York, as well.

Fortunately, despite all of their efforts, Maryland and Virginia were largely unsuccessful in adding separate reference points for the Chesapeake Bay, which would have allowed them to harvest a significant portion of the 2011 year class–the only good year class we’ve seen since 2003. They also tried to base commercial reduction on quota instead of actual harvest, which in many cases would have resulted in no real reduction at all. Fortunately that effort failed as well.

There are only a few options in Addendum IV that we should focus on going forward… So if I’ve still got you, let’s get to them.

“Option A” is of course, status quo. Believe it or not, there are commissioners who have supported this option, and who will argue for it as we move forward, even though it will have less than a one-percent chance of keeping fishing mortality below the target in one or three years. Obviously we do not want Option A!

“Option B” would reduce fishing mortality to a level that is at or below the target within ONE YEAR. This represents a 25-percent reduction from 2013 total harvest. The reduction would of course be shared by both commercial and recreation fishermen.

Option B is the best of the choices available, but it’s a long way from perfect. If you read some of my other stuff you will recall that the what the Technical Committee was initially recommending was a 31 to 34-percent reduction, but it later revisited the commercial discard numbers (those fish they throw back dead,) which ended up being lower than initially projected (Note: the Technical Committee admits that they don’t have a firm grasp on that number.) Really, it’s hard not to think that the change was political, in some way influenced by the wailing and gnashing of teeth. But I don’t really know.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Getting back to the options, “Option C” would reduce fishing to a level that is at or below the target within THREE YEARS. This represents a 17-percent reduction from 2013 total harvest starting in the 2015 fishing year. There are no additional reductions in subsequent years; the 17-percent reduction would be taken all in the first year. Yes, I had to read this a few times also before I understood it. So we’re taking a 17-percent reduction in one year. And theoretically, by doing so it would reduce fishing mortality to at or below the target mortality level by the end of the third year, 2017.

Now, “Option D” would reduce fishing mortality to a level that is at or below the target within THREE YEARS also. But instead of doing the reduction in the first year, it would meter it out at seven-percent a year. This is by far the least precautionary option. In fact, a seven-percent reduction over three years is almost as bad as just doing nothing at all.

What I don’t really understand here is how the three year options (C and D) are even compliant! Amendment 6 is pretty clear that if the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the spawning stock biomass (SBB) falls below the target within either of those years (the fishing mortality target was exceeded in 2011 and 2012, and SSB has been below target since 2006) the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target WITHIN ONE YEAR. WTF man!?

If ASMFC can change its mind any time a management plan becomes inconvenient rather than living up to its promise to the public to take action when a trigger is tripped, then it is telling the public that those management plans aren’t worth the paper that they’re written on. They are saying management plans can be altered at the whim of the management board, regardless of the impact of such change on the health of a public resource. ASMFC has a serious credibility problem if it adopts the three-year phase-in.

But really, who am I kidding. Pretty sure they don’t care.

The point is that Options C and D, which drag things out for three years, are unacceptable. Option B, the 25-percent reduction in one year, is really the best option at this point, and I guess the one we should be advocating for moving forward. But even that isn’t great.

I should note here that all these options, including Option B, have only a 50-percent probability of achieving their goal. In other words, a coin toss. I’m not gonna get into how wrong this is and how given the history of fisheries management we should know better… and how it’s really foolish to not have options that have a greater chance of success because I’ve covered that in other blogs (e.g On Downplaying the Plight of Striped Bass.) And believe me, I voiced that concern at the Striped Bass Advisory Panel meeting. So yeah, I think Option B sucks, but it may be the best we have at this point.

Well, that’s not entirely true. During last week’s ASMFC meeting Massachusetts Commissioner Paul Diodati moved to include an option in the draft addendum for a 30-percent reduction in one year. That makes sense given that the great majority of the public seems to want more significant cuts. But I doubt it will get much support from commissioners. Nonetheless, if that option gets fleshed out and included in the Draft Addendum, we should support it.

Of course there are other more specific options in the document, including bag, size, slot and trophy size limits for the recreational fishery and quota reductions/quota trading for the commercial fishery. But for right now, the goal should be to just get the largest reduction in fishing mortality we can. Because despite what a shrinking number of naysayers are spouting, striped bass are in big trouble.

Having listened to ASMFC discuss the striped bass decline during the last two years, it’s pretty darn apparent that the emphasis is all on money, and whatever economic benefit Commissioners can squeeze out of these fish. But what no one—except for Deodati—seems to be talking about is the loss of income to guys like me. Guys who focus on striped bass charters, guys who depend on abundance. And what about all the surfcasters who are losing access to this fishery very quickly? And all the gear they or any recreational striped bass fishermen buys, the hotels they stay in, the restaurants they eat at? The far-reaching loss of income due to the decline is, I’m sure, extraordinary.

But, of course, it’s the poor commercial fisherman, or the apparently struggling party/charter captains (who can fall back on abundant summer flounder, black seabass and scup stocks) that they listen to, because, well, because they are just louder.

So listen, man. If striped bass are important to you, it’s time to be loud. Really F’n loud! I’m tired of the bullshit. This pro-harvest/F the public mentality has got to go. The Draft Addendum may not be perfect, but we have let ASMFC know that we really want the most risk adverse/precautionary option. Right now that looks like Option B, but before writing, let’s see what they do with the Diodati motion.

The Draft Addendum will be available on the Commission website (www.asmfc.org) under Public Input the week of August 11th. In the near future there will be public hearings in just about every striped bass state. I’ll be sure to let you know when and where these will happen. If you can’t make the hearing or just find those things as unpleasant as I do (although you can bet your ass I’ll be at the New York one,) written comment will be accepted until the end of September.

That’s all for now. Stand by and I will update you on the public comment situation as it develops.

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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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9 comments on “Where We are With Striped Bass
  1. avatar Dick Nicholson says:

    1. MD & VA suck and the Striper Nation should boycott their travel & products unless they get in line. Ditto re Menhaden, Herring & bycatch.

    2. Ban treble hooks as they kill too many released fish.

    3. Limit recreational catch to 1 fish between X” and Y”.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. avatar EC NEWELLMAN says:

    There you go again John…taking a unwarranted pot-shot again at the for-hire industry, most notably the party boat fleet in the NY-NJ BIGHT region.

    To wit:

    “apparently struggling party/ charter captains (who can fall back on abundant summer flounder, black seabass and scup stocks) that they listen to, because, well, because they are just louder.”

    Louder….

    Louder in what sense, when there was a MAFMC meeting yesterday on opening up Wave 1 – BSB in 2015, and listening to your comments against this, contradicts both the “loudness” of the party boat fleet trying to stay viable during the winter months, and your questioning about the health of the BSB biomass.

    Here you write “abundant” sea bass, but boy, you shooting off at the lip again, and displaying a total ignorance of the Wave 1 – BSB fishery in this region….and you have a seat on the council!

    Let me ask you….what is this whole thing with 150 feet of water you keep bringing up…you mentioned this depth even at the MAFMC meeting in Freehold NJ a few months back. Where does any for-hire vessel fish coming out of a NY or NJ fishing port catch BSB at that depth during Wave 1?

    Maybe Captain Jim C. out of Cape May during a warm winter, but even then, fishing for sea bass in January and February is done within a band of 30 – 40 fathoms from Shinnecock west through south to Cape May, and most notably there is a gradual transition of BSB as well as scup then moving between 40 – 60 fathoms during this particular time period as they migrate around the Hudson and the canyons to the south. So I like to know where in 25 fathoms (150 feet to you puddle fishermen) during Wave 1 off the NY-NJ BIGHT a party boat fishes.

    Can you document any party boat doing this in January and February, yes the Wave 1 period…or is this like the whole striped bass issue of party boats being caught fishing in the EEZ, in the NY-NJ BIGHT. I asked you in a earlier column to name ONE from last year during the spring and fall striped bass run, and so far crickets.

    So is this tossing red-meat statements out there without any factual basis?

    Then you brought up this issue on fishing ‘reefs’ offshore… again this was during the discussion as it pertains to opening up Wave 1 BSB during the months January and February….now what reef is the for-hire fleet fishing during this time period?

    Normally John, when you mention ‘reef’, it is generally presumed that this is natural-bottom that comes up and is just below a inshore area, most notably along or close to a shoreline.

    To give you an idea about what structure is fished during Winter BSB Wave 6 and Wave 1, fishing is ‘wreck-centric’ for almost the whole for-hire party boat fleet in NY-NJ BIGHT.

    Other than some fishing done south off the Cape May and Baltimore Rocks, when a for-hire vessel goes fishing during this period, they are fishing wrecks, notably large ones in 30 fathoms or deeper.

    You also bring up the issue of discard mortality, and the use of a venting tool to lessen/diminish the effects of barotrauma on BSB. How many times did you bring this up during the last two meetings?

    Have you ever taken the time to do this to a BSB caught in 30 fathoms of water or deeper? Do you know how to properly use a venting tool on BSB?

    Two years ago with the help of Captain Jeff of the VOYAGER, both myself and the mates used venting tools on a Wave 6 BSB and scup trip. We wanted to personally see how practical this was.

    I posted the pics (and will again) and mentioned how tough it was to successfully do this when you have roughly 25 customers (or more) and you have to rush around on a rolling 77 foot party boat in the winter and properly vent a BSB with a surgically sharp instrument, especially when the fish are coming up “two at a lash.” It is neither practical nor do you save/have success with as many fish as compared to when fishing down in the Gulf of Mexico for snapper and grouper.

    Another point of fact… during the rebuilding cycle that occurred during and from the late nineties into the early 2000’s, the BSB stock rebuilt with a year around 25 fish bag limit, and without any note on the use of a venting tool. In fact, a leading for-hire authority on this particular issue Captain Monty Hawkins just recently wrote:

    “For NOAA to suddenly decide East Coast baurotrauma is a big deal is poppycock. Consider how the sea bass population grew from approximately 13 million pounds from the 1997 dawn of cbass regulation to almost 40 million pounds by 2003. During that time no one I know had ever heard of a venting needle..” ( http://www.fishingunited.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=14470 )

    It does beg the question John, “have you ever engaged as a captain or crew member, or commercial fishing – rod and reel fishing during Wave 1?”

    “How much do you really know about the winter offshore fishery?”

    John I have been doing this since the mid 1980’s, starting in Virginia out of Rudee Inlet where there was a very limited rod and reel commercial fishing industry that would run off 60 or more miles during the winter. I have pics posted of this too, but I would imagine you getting all upset (like you do here) seeing a big Xactics box filled and over flowing with large and BO’ BSB….yes during the years when the BSB stock was “not so abundant.” Oh the inhumanity of one commercial fishermen catching so many big sea bass at one time, right…it might affect what YOU can catch during the summer…right John, didn’t you make this comment at the Freehold meeting?

    So John since you are tired of the bull-crap, I am too…especially with your comments and stance at the meeting yesterday…contrary to what you stated here about party boat industry being loud and abundant sea bass.

    By the way John, why don’t you mention how long the public comment period was on opening Wave 1 yesterday…and why don’t you inform everyone how long it was at the Freehold meeting where five party boat captains and Greg D. of the GSSA had to yell out and ask permission for a bare few minutes to make a public comment on the Wave 1 issue.

    Loud….c’mon John, get your facts straight. If you want to know something, just ask and we will give you the information first hand on the boat during the winter and you can see for yourself.

    You will see that USCG inspected party boats provide the safest and most economical platform for ALL recreational anglers to enjoy fishing for BSB during Wave 1.

    As always, lunch is on me….

    This will also be posted on FISHING UNITED.COM

    Thank you for your time,

    EC NEWELLMAN

  3. avatar jeff nichols says:

    from what I hear com guys are having a tough time finding slot fish in NY state.

    never mind the “data” for me, The cannery in the coal mine, Montauk Harbor, that is usually splashing with small fish in early june, last two years I have not herd a splash. THis fishry will crash no doubt, there is one or two big bio masses left and it got hammered for three weeks in July. it is 1978 all over again

  4. EC NEWELLMAN… Or Steve, or whatever u r calling yourself these days… Thanks for the comments. I will answer every question/concern in next week’s blog.

  5. avatar Flukeskywalkers Fishing Arts says:

    Thank God for men like you who can see clearly… Thank you for all your efforts through the years John. With our human population booming everyone should agree striped bass can no longer be fished like they live in an isle at Walmart !

  6. avatar EC NEWELLMAN says:

    John, you could call me Shirley if that is the way you roll.

    Is it possible to link audio files from the Wave 1 – BSB meeting in Freehold, NJ and in DC, here for everyone to hear?

    So I am looking forward to you doing a little research about the winter BSB fishery in the mid-Atlantic. Maybe you can mix in a little MRFFS and MRIP chart data in here too.

    It’s hard to cram for this one buddy…especially with people like myself involved in this fishery since the 1980’s.

    But then again, what do fishermen who have been on the water and have done it know….right? It’s all anecdotal as they would say at the meetings.

    Thank you for your time,

    EC NEWELLMAN
    (nom de plume on the internet since 1996)

  7. Okay… U got it Shirley. I’ll see what I can do with the audio files.

  8. And, uhm, BTW, in case u didn’t notice, the above blog is on striped bass, not black seabass. U guys have a position on option A,B,C or D? If I had to make a guess, I’d prob say it’s D. Right?

  9. avatar SHIRLEY says:

    John,

    The issue with striped bass is greater then more restrictive regulatory management changes, in that both inshore water quality and warming waters are causing noticeable changes in both the spawning and migratory patterns of striped bass in the Mid-Atlantic region.

    Lets start with the premise if we implement the harshest cuts to both the recreational and commercial sector come 2015.

    How high would be the probability be that it will immediately increase the coastal striped bass biomass?

    Is making a 50% cut in the bag (angler perception), from 2 fish to 1 fish, going to make that big a difference?

    Will increasing the legal minimum possession size make that big a difference or in fact be detrimental to increasing the biomass immediately?

    Since you like to toss ideas out there, how about something that would immediately make a difference…

    The immediate prohibition of the use of live bait starting in 2015?

    Think that would help?

    How about each state deciding to have a no retention/possession of striped bass during the spring migration?

    Would that help?

    No treble hook rule for the fishery?

    John one thing we have noticed here in the NY-NJ Bight is a disturbing pattern not only with striped bass, but with scup, sea bass, fluke and bluefish…an initial wave of fish that come along the shoreline areas in the spring, which dribble out over a two to three week period, with no further recharging or filling in of the above species of fish.

    What happened with bluefish this spring right into the summer? Should we make immediate cuts to bluefish because they came and just disappeared for weeks on end?

    How many years here along the New Jersey shoreline from Barnegat, northward to east of Jones Inlet, Long Island that scup catches continue to dwindle where the spring run of fish is very small..at the same time when the stock is fully rebuilt?

    If you don’t believe that, check party boat VTR data in both states with scup landings during Wave 3.

    The part with the regulatory changes John is that any changes/ cuts, disproportionately affect party boats which engage in the fishery for a very small and limited portion of the open striped bass season….essentially a few weeks in the spring, than a few weeks in the fall, if there is a run of fish.

    I just wonder John if the fishermen and fishery managers who support the more restrictive options, DO NOT SEE AN INCREASE in the striped bass biomass.

    Where do we go then?

    How much more do we cut?

    How much more restrictive do we have to be….as far as a no catch and release fishery since is documented to cause mortality?

    No doubt striped bass are resilient, and rebuild very quickly as we have seen in the past three decades.

    I just wonder what you and those others out there say when there is no recovery…and as much, if there is a recovery and hopefully so, how do we go about restoring the reductions to the for-hire fleet and private vessel and the shore bound angler?

    Or is this so eco-agenda driven due to what has been the rallying cry and underlining theme of “why does any fisherman need more then one striped bass?”

    Two last things John….why don’t you explain what happened this spring here between the states of NY-NJ when it came to striped bass.

    Was there a spring OCEAN RUN of striped bass which the party and charter boats here in the NY-NJ Bight to feast upon this spring?

    How come there is a pattern of an incredible run of striped bass off Montauk in July and August?

    Where did those fish come from, because they sure didn’t pass along the beaches here in the west!

    The last point John and it is something we should both highly support is to immediately begin a coastal striped bass tagging program. lets encourage every fishermen here to support a new tagging program starting in 2015.

    Best,

    Shirley from the Bay

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