STRIPED BASS ROLLOVERS… ANOTHER BAD IDEA…

Addendum II will comprise yet another small but real drain on striped bass

Today is 10/8… It’s 5:00PM and I’m on a train home from the Striped Bass Advisory Panel (AP) meeting. I have to mention that I’ve been awake since 3:00AM and I’m running purely on caffeine at the moment so please excuse the likely mistakes. This AP meeting was arranged so that ASMFC staff could update the Panel on the results of the 2009 updated stock assessment that was literally just released this week. But it was also so that that we could review “Draft Addendum II” to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which deals with unused commercial quota roll over.

Let’s begin with the former, and I’ll try to be very brief due to a lack of time, space and of course reader attention spans (no offence… I know my eyes glaze over when I read a lot of this stuff). The short version is that the stock is still not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. The population is not under imminent threat, and it is not declining to unhealthy levels. Although, it has taken a notable dip from its 2004 high, it still remains well above the thresholds for management action. Fishing mortality is believed to be well below the target, and the number of older fish (age 8+) in the population has fallen, but seems to have stabilized. I’m not so sure I believe all of this to be the case, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Right now, let’s talk about Addendum II.

The Addendum proposes to allow any unused coastal commercial quota of striped bass to be rolled over from one year to the next. To be more clear, the uncaught commercial striped bass quota from one year (the “underage”) would be added to the following year’s quota and thus be allowed to be caught then. So if New York’s commercial fisherman, for instance, caught all but 100,000 pounds of their quota this year, that 100k pounds would be added to next year’s quota.

I don’t really get it… I mean, such quotas as I understand them, are meant to act as hard ceiling that should not be exceeded, but in this case the ASMFC seems to want to use the quota as a target to be achieved. Addendum II explicitly states that “avoiding a quota overage signifies managerial success.” (“While avoiding a quota overage signifies managerial success, a quota underage represents lost opportunity to commercial harvesters.”) While it is true that a state’s failure to fill its entire quota does diminish commercial fishers’ opportunities to profit from the public striped bass resource, it is also true that it is a practical impossibility to set regulations in a manner that assures that a quota will be met but not exceeded.

Regardless, there are abundant reasons for precaution here and while the proposed commercial rollover in the grand scheme doesn’t look like it will increase mortality all that much, it will still increase mortality, and that’s not good right now. Undoubtedly, we’re beginning to see more and more warning signs with striped bass. The chorus of complaints is getting harder and harder to blow off. There are constant anecdotal reports that striped bass abundance at the northern and now southern ends of its range have decreased sharply. Anecdotal evidence from anglers, throughout the coast, suggest that striped bass are less available than in recent years, and that with the exception of a handful of very large fish that may have been spawned during the moratorium years of the 1980s, the average size of the fish caught by anglers is declining.

Then there’s Mycobacteriosis, a disease affecting striped bass, which we still don’t know a whole lot about. It could very possibly be a serious threat to the striped bass population, particularly in Chesapeake Bay, where it has its greatest impact on the older females that spawn in the largest striped bass nursery area on the coast. Recruitment in 2006 and 2007 was some of the worst in recent years, while the 2008 Maryland young of the year index, traditionally a reliable measure of future striped bass abundance, was merely 3.7% of the long term average. The winter tagging cruise that takes place off Virginia and North Carolina in January caught the fewest striped bass in its 22-year history.

Any one of those factors, taken on its own, is probably not significant. Striped bass typically experience very irregular spawning success, in which dominant, average and below-average year classes follow one another without discernable pattern. Weather can affect fishing success, whether by anglers or by research vessels, in any given year, and changes in water temperature and/or forage abundance may affect the annual distribution of striped bass. However, when viewed as a whole, particularly considering the potential impact of mycobacteriosis, there is more than adequate reason to approach any increase in the actual striped bass harvest with caution.

Unfortunately, the ASMFC has not been precautionary. It has incrementally increased harvest not by a single coordinated action, but rather by a series of measures that one Board member has likened to “death by a thousand cuts.” In a single session, the Board created fisheries in Delaware and Pennsylvania for striped bass smaller than the 28-inch coastal minimum, eliminated the quota on the Chesapeake Bay spring “trophy” fishery and permitted Maryland to extend its December season by more than two weeks. Addendum II would comprise yet another small but very real drain on striped bass abundance by authorizing a de facto increase in commercial harvest.

Add to this the fact that that allowing a commercial rollover would likely provide an incentive to under report harvest. The ability to increase next year’s quota by failing to report a fully caught quota is ample motivation for commercial fishermen to under-report their catch because selling fish under the table could actually result in a larger quota the following year. And we all well know that there’s already a big problem with such black market striped bass fisheries.
It’s worthy of noting here that that those black market fisheries are not accounted for in the assessment process. During the AP meeting discussion, the Technical Committee rep gave some pretty poor reasons why such known black market fisheries are not accounted for, even though it seems to be well known and has been repeatedly documented by arrests and convictions. They claim there is just no way they can get an accurate estimate of such fisheries, even if they gathered records from the various enforcement agencies.
It’s also worth noting here that the commercial fishing AP rep from New York complained that they hadn’t fished their quota in a few years and thus should be entitled to those fish in the following years. I made the counter point that when you figure in all the poaching that takes place in Lower New York Harbor, I’m certain it’s been filled, and then some. Judging by my anecdotal observations in my neck of the woods, I’d even go so far as to say that the illegal catch may even be more than the total legal catch. While my assertions were written off as hyperbole by the commercial rep, anyone who has spent any time in Lower New York Harbor knows that the problem is a monumental one. There has historically been a large scale poaching problem here. There just isn’t much the DEC or anyone else can do about it. Although I cannot attest to it personally, there are plenty of folks who claim such fisheries exist in other states as well. I feel it’s very unlikely there is any such thing as a commercial quota underage with striped bass in most states.

But, hey, maybe I’m wrong. We could assume all fisherman are honest and report all their landings, and there is little to no poaching. If that’s the case as some commercial reps claim, could it be possible that the failure to harvest a state’s full quota is due to a contraction of the striped bass population? Brad Burns of Stripers Forever seems to think so “If the state fails to reach its quota over the course of an entire season, it is a very good indication that there simply are not as many striped bass out there as the fishery managers estimated. Given the fishing reports that we have been receiving this is a very likely scenario.”

There could indeed be some truth to this. My fishing has been substandard the last couple of seasons and the chorus of complaints coast-wide is just too loud for it to be a coincidence. And we can’t ignore the fact that the stock has been on the decline since 2004. Yet such fluctuations are not out of the ordinary and can easily be explained away by the good year-classes leaving the population. The Technical Committee seems to think the stock will begin showing an upward trend when the newer strong year-classes come into play. Still, I can’t help but think there is something that the assessment scientists are missing. And right now, I’m just not sure what that is.

It could be the mortality coming from the relatively new winter fisheries in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. These fisheries are composed almost completely of large spawning fish and until recently were never utilized. And the current MRFSS data collection system doesn’t sample during those first months of the year (what they consider to be “Wave 1”). And of course it could be the poaching. Still, the stock size and age distribution should show the effects of this fishery. Regardless, we do indeed MRFSS sampling for those Wave I fisheries because undoubtedly that fishery is resulting in a lot of big dead bass. Unfortunately , it doesn’t appear to be forthcoming.

And speaking of MRFSS, we’re still using the same old system to determine all these striped bass numbers, and such a system has been widely discredited. Of course, it’s still the best available data, but to me it would make sense to wait until the new MIRP system is up and running before we take any more steps in increase harvest, however incremental they may be.

But getting back to Addendum II, “Given the choice between underage and overage, the public interest is better served by assuring that the striped bass resource is not overfished,” writes CCA NY’s Chairman Charles Witek, “and that the underage is “reinvested” in the spawning stock to better assure abundance in future years.” I couldn’t agree more.

Until the uncertainties relating to striped bass abundance, including both trends in recruitment and future abundance and the effects of mycobacteriosis on the overall health of the stock, are determined in the next baseline stock assessment, consideration of a rollover of uncaught commercial quota is both premature and irresponsible. As representatives of the public interest and as stewards of the public striped bass resource, the Board is obligated to take a risk-averse approach to striped bass management, and to maintain the status quo as to the rollover of unused quota. Furthermore, the ASMFC should take clear recognition of the fact that the best time to resolve a problem is before it actually occurs.

ASMFC is still taking public comment on Addendum II, but not for much longer. It will be accepted until 5:00 PM (EST) on October 16, 2009. If you think that a commercial rollover is a bad idea like I do, let them know about it. Comments should be sent to Nichola Meserve, FMP Coordinator, 1444 ‘Eye’ Street, NW, Sixth Floor, Washington, DC 20005; (202) 289-6051 (FAX) or at nmeserve@asmfc.org (Subject line: Striped Bass Draft Addendum II).

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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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