Well… I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Yesterday, the ASMFC Striped Bass Management Board passed a motion by a narrow 8 to 7 margin to create an addendum to increase commercial harvest. The swing state was Maryland, which voted against the commercial rollover at the last meeting but for the commercial increase at this one (explain that one to me). The motion came from Augustine of New York and was seconded by Johnston from North Carolina. Embarrassingly enough it was the New York delegation that seemed to be advocating for the increase more than any other state.
The rational was this: “the population is in good shape, so where are the benefits?”
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or just a regular striped bass fisherman, you know that this is simply not true. Coast wide the complaints about the quality of the striped bass fishery are becoming very hard to ignore.
Years ago I wrote that Flyfishing guides like me may have a unique perspective on the striped bass fishery because of time-on-the-water and the inherent difficulty in the method. Thus, we are perhaps the first to see what could be the beginning of a very serious problem. But now, even the bait fishers and trollers are beginning to show unrest as their catches are down in size and numbers. The overwhelming majority of anglers who participated in the 2009 Stripers Forever annual fishing survey reported that the fishery has been declining significantly. It’s becoming more and more obvious that striped bass are progressively less available to anglers than in prior years.
Not to fishery managers though… All of this is considered anecdotal. As I made quite clear in my last striped bass column, according to the latest stock assessment “striped bass are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.” In fact, the assessment shows that the resource is in very good condition. The estimated size of the spawning stock currently exceeds the management goals by a large margin, and the estimated fishing mortality continues to be under what scientists believe is a safe level.
It’s frustrating to see managers paint such a rosy picture of the striped bass fishery, when folks on the ground are seeing it slip away. It’s even more frustrating when its gives folks a reason to throw precaution to the wind and ask for more fish.
Given the growing unrest re striped bass amongst anglers, such a lack of precaution is irritating, but not at all surprising. After all, the science is the science, and ASMFC manages a number of recreational and commercially important stocks that are in great peril (winter flounder, weakfish and river-herring are the first to come to mind). There are plenty of federally managed fisheries as well where there is clear data that such stocks are in bad shape or are rebuilding and thus managers are required to set firm catch limits. Faced with these realities, and the fact that a growing number of fishermen are running out of species to catch, managers are unlikely to exercise precaution with a species that seems to be doing awfully good on paper, particularly when their constituents are clamoring to kill more fish.
Furthermore, it’s hard to argue the fishery is in decline when there are still localized bodies of fish that are providing good action (Northern New Jersey, Cape Cod, Rhode Island, Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in the winter etc.) although even catches in those hot spots seem to be declining now. Regardless, it’s not where the fish are, it’s where they aren’t, and looking at the Northern and Southern states in the striped bass’ range, clearly we’re seeing the stock contract. Even some managers reluctantly acknowledge this when faced with a documented decline since 2004 (the decline on paper isn’t significant enough to trigger corrective management actions), although they conveniently explain it away as the result of those good year-classes such as the 1996 cohort leaving the fishery, and the more recent good year-classes (e.g. 2003) have yet to be recruited into the fishery. Thus, according to the ASMFC Technical Committee striped bass numbers should go up soon.
I hope they are right, but I don’t believe they are. It’s hard to believe that we’re not killing too many fish when you can take a walk to any given marina in Montauk, or Cape Cod or any of the well known striped bass ports and see dumpsters full of big bass carcasses any given day during the season. And this is not something we can point the proverbial finger at the commercial fishing folks for. Recreational mortality accounts for almost 80% of the total. To put it in perspective, just the recreational discard mortality (the number of fish that die after we release them) is double the total commercial catch.
Even so, there is no justification for a commercial increase. Of course I’m aware of the following accusations: “Recreational fishermen are greedy! They are killing all the fish and just want to keep all the fish for themselves!” But really, I don’t know anyone concerned about striped bass who wants more fish for themselves. I, along with a great number of striped bass anglers and guides want to see striped bass mortality reduced plain and simple. If readers recall the Amendment 6 hearings years ago, we filled rooms with striped bass anglers asking for larger size limits and arguing against an increase from a one to two fish bag limit. We didn’t get it, but that’s not the point here. The point is that concerned striped bass anglers don’t want more striped bass, they want fewer and any increase, whether commercial or recreational is a bad thing.
But managers don’t care. Striped bass mortality has been slowly ratcheted up by a series of measures that one Board member has likened to “death by a thousand cuts.” Just a couple of months ago an Addendum to allow for a commercial rollover of quota would have comprised yet another small but very real drain on striped bass abundance if it were not defeated by a very narrow margin.
The most recent action to increase commercial quota is disturbing, particularly since the ASMFC had just received a long presentation suggesting that the Chesapeake fish might be in real trouble due to Mycobacteriosis, but the majority voted to increase commercial harvest anyway.
I’m thoroughly annoyed with the way managers have been handling striped bass as my business depends in large part on the health of the striped bass resource. But if you’re not annoyed yet, let’s take it one step further.
New York is currently considering, and in all likelihood, probably will implement a directed trawl fishery for striped bass. Yep… That’s right… Dragging big nets for stripers.
Obviously, trawls are not a permitted gear type in New York’s striped bass fishery. In fact they are not permitted in any coastal state’s waters save North Carolina’s. But years ago, the trawlers convinced the DEC that they were killing bass as bycatch, and the DEC ultimately gave them 1 box–7 bass–as a bycatch allowance. That number was increased to 21 fish in 2006.
In Jan of this year, they put a proposal on the table to do away with the 21 fish bycatch allowance and permit a directed fishery. According to sources, it was freely admitted by trawler operators attending the Marine Resources Advisory Council (MFAC) meeting that commercial fishermen generally ignore the fact that striped bass are supposed to be taken as bycatch only, and intentionally target striped bass as a matter of course. So now the trawlers want their actions rewarded by a removal of the 21-fish “bycatch” limit, so that trawlers may legally target the species and have their harvest limited only to the number of tags issued to them by the DEC.
Representatives of the trawler fleet argue that they currently “have to” make multiple trips inshore in order to catch enough striped bass tags, and that a change in the law permitting a directed fishery would allow them to “fill” all of their striped bass tags in fewer trips.
Of course, directing trawling effort on striped bass is contrary to the intent of current regulations, and there is probably no fish less suited to trawling gear than striped bass, in particular due to New York’s tight 24-36 inch commercial slot, as trawls would undoubtedly catch numerous bass which fell outside the slot size and would be returned to the water dead.
Such a “bycatch allowance” was initially instituted because trawlers claimed that they could not avoid catching some bass, and that they needed the original seven-fish limit, since raised to 21, to avoid waste. How would trawlers would be able to avoid such waste once all of their tags had been used I don’t know. It doesn’t matter as it looks like they are going to get what they want.
MRAC passed a motion to create a subcommittee to examine the issue at their January meeting. They will vote on the subcommittee’s recommendation, which will undoubtedly be to allow the directed trawl fishery, at its March or April meeting. I have little doubt that MRAC will then endorse the inevitable subcommittee recommendation that a directed trawl fishery be created, and I have little doubt that the DEC will go along, particularly given their recent advocacy for the commercial increase at the ASMFC meeting.
So… here’s where we are with all of this. The ASMFC proposed coastal commercial increase isn’t by any means a done deal. ASMFC is merely moving forward with the Addendum. Its staff will draw up a draft addendum for Board review/approval at the May meeting. If it is accepted, public hearings on the issue would start in June. At that point we’ll really need to get the message out that we do not want to see such a commercial increase happen. In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping you from contacting the commissioner in your state and letting him know how you feel about such a commercial increase. Here’s the link: http://www.asmfc.org/commissioners.htm.
The directed trawl fishery in New York is a little more difficult. More than likely, there will be no public hearings, or much of an opportunity to comment. In March or April or May, the matter will come before MRAC, and people in the audience will be allowed to comment. Then MRAC will vote overwhelmingly to permit the fishery, probably with one or, at best, two objections, and the DEC will be asked to write the appropriate regulations.
If the DEC does write regulations, and I imagine they will, the proposed regulations will be printed in the State Register and on the DEC website, so that folks and can write comments in favor and in opposition. Stay tuned and I’ll let you know when that happens. In the meantime don’t be bashful. Send DEC Marine Resources an email letting them know how you feel about creating a directed trawl fishery for striped bass. email@example.com.