Commercial fishing is probably the least of our worries
During yet another substandard charter last week, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when one of my anglers started with the “if the commercial guys weren’t killing all the striped bass” stuff. It always helps to rationalize poor fishing, I suppose, but I hear this kind of thing a lot, and while it may feel good to place blame, for the most part it just isn’t true.
I try not to preach on the boat. That’s certainly not what guys pay me to do. (They pay me to put them on fish, which I’m beginning to think I might really suck at. Although, if you wanna count bluefish, I guess I’m still pretty good.) But, I did indeed just try and give a few reasons why this simply wasn’t the case, although it’s usually something people don’t want to hear. In hindsight, I should have just played along, as it’s always easier to blame some other entity for bad fishing – helps shift responsibility away from the guide.
Yet given that brief conversation, I thought it might be beneficial to go into some detail here regarding the reasons we’ve seen striped bass slowly but surely fade – and why guys like me are suddenly having to gain a new appreciation for bluefish.
Yeah, I suppose it’s intuitive to think that commercial guys are wreaking havoc on the striped bass population, because they use nets, etc., and I don’t fault people for having that point of view. Sure, like any stakeholder the commercial sector is a contributing factor, but it’d be dishonest to place all or even a good portion of blame on those guys. The fact is, there are a bunch of things going on here. Some are fishing related, and some are not. But let’s start by talking about the commercial guys, because that misconception seems to be pretty frequent.
Commercial harvest has actually been capped for decades. Commercial fishermen, at least the legal ones, are easily managed. Every fish they bring to market is theoretically counted. While each state does it differently, when the quota is reached, they get shut down.
The recreational part of this fishery, on the other hand, is managed by bag and size limits. It is very difficult to monitor the mortality, much less control it. The recreational catch can and has gone up tremendously in the last two decades as the stock recovered. Dick Brame, Coastal Conservation Association’s Atlantic states fisheries coordinator, coined the phrase “the Bubba Effect.” If Bubba catches a bunch of fish and tells his friends, they all want to go fishing. And thus the number of anglers targeting striped bass increases exponentially as the stock rebuilds, and there are more and larger fish to catch. That sort of thing has greatly intensified with the various information sharing platforms online.
This of course isn’t a bad thing (more anglers, more money spent, more businesses doing better, ehm, like mine) as long as they can keep mortality in check. With striped bass, managers are really beginning to fail in that respect, but I’ve dedicated a bunch of posts to that so I’m not gonna harp on it again here.
Getting back on point, of course as the stock increased in abundance, the number of fish killed by anglers increased. It peaked in 2006 (since then it’s been going down because, as you might have guessed, there are less fish to catch). During that peak, recreational fishing mortality dwarfed commercial landings. We accounted for more than 80 percent of fishing mortality back then. In fact, just the recreational discard mortality (those fish that don’t survive the catch) was more than double the total commercial catch.
Sure, that disparity has evened out some as the stock declines – because there are simply less fish around for anglers to catch while commercial guys of course still can reach their quotas pretty easily – but anglers still are accounting for a good twothirds of fishing mortality. Given the amount of striped bass anglers we’ve created during the recovery, even as the stock continues to decline, we’ll still have enough guys in the fishery to account for most of the mortality. That probably won’t change until it gets really bad, and there is little hope of catching even one striped bass during the course of an outing.
The point is that anglers account for most of the mortality in the striped bass fishery –certainly more than the commercial sector. It’s just inaccurate to say that if we just got rid of the commercial striped bass fishermen we’d see this fishery come back quickly, especially since there’s no clarity about what would happen to that commercial quota. I think a lot of folks suspect/hope that it would mean anglers get to kill more fish. And what would that accomplish? It’s also folly to think that anglers have little impact when it’s pretty darn clear that over the last decade we’ve had considerably more impact than the commercial guys. So when you start saying that commercial guys are decimating the stock, you lose credibility with decision-makers pretty quickly.
Let me be clear that I do think commercial fishing mortality is significant. And poaching, which we can’t even begin to quantify, is a big issue. But that doesn’t mean that recreational fishing isn’t a large, if not the largest, part of the problem in terms of fishing mortality. And some of the biggest advocates of putting off needed reductions in catch are the charter/party-boat people, who argue that reducing their bag limit from two to one fish will put them out of business. Unfortunately that tends to resonate with managers, who for some reason fail to consider that if the striped bass population declines beyond a certain point, people are going to go out of business anyway. That said, most rank-and-file recreational fishermen, and certainly the surf fishing and light-tackle communities, want to see fishing mortality reduced like, uhm, yesterday! We see the writing on the wall. We know the striped bass fishery is in trouble.
But that still doesn’t change the fact that most commissioners seem to believe that fishing mortality isn’t really the big issue. To some extent, they are right. The primary reason there are less fish around is because the Chesapeake Bay, where the bulk of the striped bass populations spawns, doesn’t seem to be putting out the same sort of good year-classes that it did in the 90s and early 2000s.
Each year a seine survey is done in various spots in Virginia and Maryland. Those surveys have shown that there’s been a good decade of average to well-below-average young-of-the-year survival. 2003 was our last good year-class that recruited into the fishery. Then, there was the anomalous 2011 year-class that appears to be quite good, and there were two average year-classes in between. Aside from that, every year from 2004 to 2013 saw poor young-of-the-year indices. The 2012 year-class appears to be the worst in more than 50 years. Even after the stock collapsed in the early 80s, the young-of-the-year index was never so low.
That is indeed a bummer. It means we’ve pretty much got nothing coming down the pike to replace all the 2003 fish we are currently knocking the crap out of. But what’s interesting is the cause. When you look at the young-of-the year indices over the last three decades, you see that the bulk of the boom as well as the bust years come in bunches. And there’s some recent science that shows such ups and downs are due to cyclical climate patterns.
There are definitive “Atlantic multidecadal oscillations” (AMOs), ocean cycles that bring several decades of warming waters followed by several decades of cooling waters. Striper numbers appear to rise during warm decades of the AMO, but they sag during cool decades. Since the early 1990s, the AMO has been in a warm phase, and we’ve seen a good amount of boon years for stripers.
That’s because during a warm phase, air masses off the ocean collide with cold fronts off the land, and that creates winter/early spring coastal storms. The result during springtime snowmelt and runoff is higher river flow, more food in the rivers during spawning, and an expanded nursery zone for tiny new stripers. When the AMO flips to a cold phase, you get drier springs, less rain, less food and worse young-of-the year indices. Since the AMO current warm phase heated up in the early 1990s, we’ve had more boom years and fewer bust years.
The recent warm phase of the AMO, which gave us a good run of boom years and contributed to the great striped bass recovery, appears to be winding down. According to several reports, we’re currently turning toward a cooler phase. This explains the Chesapeake’s fewer boom years for stripers, and it doesn’t bode well for future year-classes.
It’s not unreasonable to believe that just such a down cycle caused the striper crash in the 80s. In fact all the data shows a strong correlation. And, when that cycle ended, stripers recovered, not just because of the moratorium put in place, but because conditions for Chesapeake young-of-the year survival became favorable.
What’s the point? Well for one, let’s stop placing the blame where it doesn’t belong, especially when the recreational sector kinda lives in a glass house. But also, if we know we’re getting poor young-of-the year indices, and if we know we can probably expect another two decades of more bust than boom years, then why wouldn’t we immediately take action to lessen the impact? In other words, make a rational decision to reduce fishing mortality across the board. This will allow us to keep as many of those poor-year-class fish in the water as we can while protecting the only two good year-classes we’ve had in the last decade. Subsequently, when conditions become favorable for young-of-the-year survival, we can create big new year-classes. Really, managers should be doing everything they can to protect the 2011 year-class. But they aren’t. Maryland allowed a 14 percent increase in harvest just this year so that it could direct mortality on/take advantage of the supposed abundance of those 2011s, which would just be reaching 18 inches (the “producer area size limit”). I mean come on man… Seriously?
Striped bass have been the ASMFC’s one and only success story. They’ve screwed up just about everything else, and they are dangerously close to screwing up striped bass. “When you get right down to it, striped bass aren’t managed very well,” says noted blogger Charlie Witek. “They managed to get along during the fat years, when favorable conditions in their natal rivers allowed them to produce a big year-class every few seasons. But when times got tough and stocks declined and the population began to grow lean, ASMFC’s ‘flexible’ management approach lacked the solid legal foundation needed to assure that overfishing is stopped and the stock is rebuilt.”
It’s hard to argue that the ASMFC doesn’t consistently make bad decisions when it comes to allowable harvest. That’s because, as Charlie points out, there is no law requiring it to end overfishing and rebuild stocks. But it’s also because its members hear from the pro-harvest folks who want to fill their coolers and their wallets now, and to hell with the future, far more than they hear from rational, conservation-minded anglers like us.
Tell your commissioners NO MORE DELAY: You want to see a clear reduction in fishing mortality now. You can find their contact information here: ASMFC commissioners.