The current striped bass management system is broken. We should have better fishing, much better fishing – more bass and larger bass. And we would if ASMFC, the governing body for stripers, had been responsibly managing this fishery. On Tuesday, Feb. 4, I was able to travel to Alexandria, VA to attend another meeting of the ASMFC Striped Bass Board. Here are some of my takeaways.
ASMFC Striped Bass Board - We Can Swear at it But Can’t Afford To Swear it Off
You win some and you lose some and that was true for striped bass and the striper fishery at Tuesday’s winter meeting of the ASMFC Striped Bass Board. Results and discussions were better than our worst fears, and worse than our best hopes. There still isn’t a concerted effort to save the striped bass fishery, but at least there was some progress in imposing some responsibility in the drive to harvest every possible fish by a number of states. ASMFC has a history and habit of delaying overdue and urgently needed action, and that continued at Tuesday’s “chaotic” (as characterized by board Chair David Borden) and contentious meeting of the Striped Bass Board. The fact that this board had never disapproved (by vote or by pressure) Conservation Equivalencies (CEs) prior to this past meeting is stunning news to those of us starting to pay much closer attention. The fact that accountability for CEs that don’t meet goals had never been advanced prior to Tuesday is condemning evidence. This board has been ineffective and irresponsible. There are fundamental flaws to ASMFC’s structure and authority, and the process is dysfunctional, but for now, this is the process we have to live with.
CEs – Going Off the Rails & “Proposal” Is a Misnomer
Conservation Equivalency proposal implies an impending decision to approve or disapprove. Historical precedent for this board has been to leave that up to the proposing state, not the board. This process has not worked the way any reasonable person would assume. There hasn’t been any board approval or disapproval. No wonder ASMFC has been largely impotent. What happened Tuesday when the board went state by state was flawed but precedent setting. The New Jersey members were apoplectic that the board would have the audacity to want to vote to approve or not approve the CEs that they wanted to use. Apoplectic. I thought Adam Nowalsky (NJ) was going to have a cardiac event.
Striped bass are overfished and overfishing is occurring (bear with me – I’ll define those terms another day). The board is thus required to take action to reduce overall striped bass mortality. In October, the board adopted Addendum VI to the current management plan (known as Amendment 6, with the goal of reducing overall mortality by 18%. The board voted in favor of enacting a slot limit of 28” to 35” (1 fish per day per angler) for coastal waters and I fish per day greater than 18” in Chesapeake Bay.
Addendum VI fell apart when the board also approved New Jersey’s motion at the October meeting to ignore the plan’s goal of an 18% mortality reduction across the entire geographic range of striped bass and allow each state to cap their own mortality reduction efforts at 18%.
This led to 49 CE “proposals,” a number that was concerning to many members and to the Technical Committee (TC). In their report, the TC stated that there were too many CE proposals to even attempt to calculate if the potential mishmash of regulations would meet the goal of reducing striped bass mortality by 18%. Emerson Hasbrouck (NY) asked of the entire board at the start of the meeting if the TC has no guidance for us on coastwide mortality reduction – how are we to proceed?
It was as Ritchie White (NH) who described, “CEs going off the rails.” He went on to say that CEs had historically offered states the ability to make minor tweaks, that he was getting “tons of emails” about their misuse. He lamented that they were completed without public input up and down the coast, which is not how ASMFC does business. I like his concern, but beg to differ – it is how ASMFC does business and is one of the reasons the majority of the public has lost confidence in this organization.
Dennis Abbott (NH) lamented that even though everyone voted for a 28” to 35” slot in October they were “sitting in back with their pencils out, calculating what they could propose through CEs.” He stated that isn’t fair to the public, and wondered why did ASMFC go out to the public when the majority of the states are not abiding by the decision of the board? He even raised the obvious concern that CEs only benefit the individual states enacting them – implying that they have no benefit for the species nor the fishery as a whole. (Please note that I originally incorrectly attributed these comments to Dennis Seviakis (DE). I've corrected my mistake here.)
The TC has been directed to calculate the overall mortality reduction once all states have decided upon what regulations they will use. They will issue this report at the May meeting, but by the TC’s very clear admission, they will be guessing, given the number of variables and unknowns involved with changing angler effort, seasonal closures, slot limits, and variations in size and bag limits.
Accountability – A Novel Concept
The accountability conversation is finally on the table and figures to be a contentious topic when the board begins Amendment 7 discussions at it’s next meeting in May. It’s unbelievable that this idea of holding states accountable for regulatory results is new. Truth is stranger than fiction.
ME, NY, RI were the only members to vote in favor of the motion to require accountability for CE results initiated by Pat Keliher (ME). Pat did bring up paybacks when he first introduced the need for accountability. It’s clear that the board can require accountability and Max Appelman (ASMFC Staff) reported there is opportunity to do so, following the Fisheries Management Plan assessment after year one. The board has required accounting for commercial overharvest, so this isn’t a completely novel approach. Multiple members spoke about the need for accountability picking up steam in feedback via emails and meetings. We are beginning to be heard.
It was encouraging to hear support from John Clark (DE) and others to make accountability a part of the Amendment 7 discussions, but disheartening to watch NJ and MD look for any opportunity to delay such logical action. Mike Luisi (MD) was pretty subtle and suave with his play. Adam Nowalsky (NJ), not so much. See reference to near cardiac event above.
Accountability can’t wait for the lengthy process of implementing Amendment 7, which could take up to two years. The accountability motion that failed at Tuesday’s meeting would have evaluated the 2020 harvest but wouldn’t have required any changes in regulations if a state was overharvesting until the 2022 season and did not include any provision for paybacks.
18% Leaves No Room for Error
The board could and should direct a more conservative approach by requiring a greater than 50% likelihood to achieve desired mortality reduction. The 18% target for overall mortality reduction should have included some kind of buffer, bringing it to something like 20% or 22% or 25% given all of the uncertainties that the Technical Committee has identified and the failure of recent conservation measures. Chris Batsavage (NC) spoke in favor of a buffer discussion at future meetings and I know from post-meeting conversations that other board members would welcome that approach. This too could be a significant change to the way the board has operated, and one of the rays of hope going forward.
Inaction & Pace of Change
Too little, too late. Kicking the can down the road. Half measures (that’s being generous). All describe the history and habit of this board and ASMFC as a whole.
In the Middle
Pennsylvania, Delaware, District of Columbia, North Carolina, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and National Marine Fisheries all seem to fall into the middle, muddied waters between the states that are pushing for more responsible management and the states that just want to maximize their own harvest. Each member has an equal vote, so winning their support will be critical.
MRIP Data – The Be All & End All and Wait… The Excuse
If you’re the TC calculating mortality reduction goals you have to rely on MRIP data for harvest estimates. It’s what you have. If you’re a state crafting a CE designed to bring home the largest possible harvest, the MRIP data is gospel in the most fundamental sense – no room for argument, interpretation, or uncertainty. (See MD and NJ.) If you’re a state (not just MD and NJ, but they led the charge) arguing against accountability you lament all of the flaws and doubts surrounding MRIP data. At ASMFC you can have it both ways.
Heros And Zeros – Who Stood Up for Striped Bass
Pat Keliher, Commissioner of the Maine Dept. of Marine Resources and the incoming Chair of ASMFC, is deserving of thanks from all of us, regardless of where we live and where we fish. He pushed the board to review CEs state by state (something the board had never done) and proposed a motion to require accountability if regulations enacted under CEs resulted in harvest over targets. This too was groundbreaking, even though it didn't gain enough votes to pass. Multiple times, Pat relayed concerns of Maine stakeholders. He reported tremendous opposition to the way CEs are being used. And, he shot down an attack from NJ in their lament that they were being asked to give up too much when he relayed discussions in Maine about being more conservative than the board mandate (using that term loosely – it is ASMFC, so a mandate isn’t really a mandate). Pat was clear that the conversation at a recent meeting in Maine regarding the failures of this body really hit home. (Stephen Train also from Maine, supported Pat’s positions at every turn.)
Dr. Justin Davis from CT and Ritchie White from NH spoke up in support of every appropriate measure, motion, and CE and against every irresponsible move. They both highlighted significant concerns with public faith in the board. These guys were superstars.
MA DMF’s Dan McKiernan was a strong voice in the effort for achieving consistency in regulations coastwide and led the pushback against NY in their play to try to allow charter/party boats to take a fish of any size larger than 31”, stressing the need to protect the integrity of the MRIP data.
Rhode Island was one of the surprises for me – a real disappointment. They gave cover to NJ and MD with their CE proposal to take fish between 30” and 40” and they almost enabled NY to add to the mess with a provision for NY charter/party boats to harvest fish greater than 31”. If RI had only advanced the board recommended slot limit, NJ would now likely have the same slot (not including their "bonus fishery"). Instead we’re facing what is effectively an expansion of the “coastwide slot,” as anglers will be harvesting fish between 28” and 40”. RI did however cast one of the three votes to support accountability measures.
New York earns mixed marks. John McMurray continues to lead the charge for more responsible management of this fishery, faster and more decisive action, limits on the runaway use of CEs, and implementation of accountability measures. The rest of the NY crew made some excellent points, seemed to favor consistency in regulation, but then added to the chaos as they made an unsuccessful push for their charter/party boats to be able to take fish 31” and larger. Yikes. The CT rep wasn’t buying them a beer after the meeting. On the plus side, NY did join ME and RI in favor of finally and immediately adding some kind of accountability for the CEs.
New Jersey and Maryland continue to effectively advocate for their states to be able to harvest as many fish as possible without regard to the health of the stock. Had they been left unchecked, NJ could have been harvesting fish from 24” on up with no upper size limit through their recreational fishery and their “Bonus Program” (don’t get me started – need to save that beauty for another day). Maryland was forced into limiting recreational anglers to 1 fish at 19” but the charter/party boat fleet will take 2 fish a day per person and their spring Trophy Fishery for bass greater than 35” continues. So much for the board decision in October to limit the Chesapeake Bay fishery to 1 fish at 18”.
While it does provide momentary satisfaction to hurl vitriolic abuse at NJ and MD, it doesn’t do us much good. Telling our own board members that we expect them to hold NJ and MD accountable is different. We also need to ask our representatives to find ways to bring states that are on the fence – DE, DC, PA – onboard to urgently implement responsible management and a more conservative approach to harvests. I applaud steps that the board has taken and support measures that some members have tried to advance but this is still too little, too late. Our overwhelming voice needs to make clear that we are gravely concerned about this fishery as it currently stands and more distressed about where it will be in three years.
Enough (too much) for now. More on next steps in my next post. Thanks for caring and being involved.
Capt. Peter Fallon
Gillies & Fallon Guide Service, LLC