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ASMFC Striped Bass Board Takeaways - Better Than Our Worst Fears, Worse Than Our Best Hopes

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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”.

 

Next Steps

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.

Peter

Capt. Peter Fallon

Gillies & Fallon Guide Service, LLC

pfallon@mainestripers.com

207-522-9900


Maine Meeting on Upcoming Striped Bass Regulatory Decisions

Fly Fishing Charters Phippsburg Maine

On Thursday night, the Maine Dept. of Marine Resources held a rule-making hearing in Yarmouth to collect public comment on proposed changes to striped bass regulations in Maine. The Dept. is required to collect input because they are changing the regulation in Maine to adopt the max. size of under 35" but the draw to attend wasn't only about what they are proposing to do here. Striped bass are managed collectively by all of the states where there is a fishable population through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission or ASMFC. Many of the 38 people in attendance turned out to also speak about what some of the other states are proposing to do with their own striper rules. Maine has an equal vote with other states on the ASMFC Striped Bass Board, which meets next Tuesday, Feb. 4 to approve or disapprove of each of these proposals.

Here is the comment that I read into the public record on Thursday night. You'll find a recap of the Thursday meeting below along with a link to a helpful article from the American Saltwater Guides Association with more info.

My name is Peter Fallon. I’m here representing my charter business and the American Saltwater Guides Association. Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I hope others here in the room tonight will also comment on our fishery and our expectations.

While I had advocated for 1 fish greater than 35 inches, I am pleased to see Maine supporting the decision of the ASMFC Striped Bass Board to move to a coastwide slot limit of 1 fish between 28 and 35 inches and not submitting a Conservation Equivalency proposal.

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 had been responsibly managing this fishery.

The current use of Conservation Equivalencies, or CEs, is one fatal flaw. ASMFC has repeatedly stated that they want consistent regulations on the Atlantic coast and in Chesapeake Bay and yet they continue to approve Conservation Equivalencies that result in a mishmash of regulations and overfishing. States get to do what they want and there are zero consequences when they overfish. And they do overfish. No payback. No required adjustments to size, bag, or season limits. No constraints on future CE proposals from those states.

Recreational anglers in New Jersey harvested almost five and a half million pounds of fish in 2016. To put that into perspective, the recreational harvest in Massachusetts that year was just over two million pounds and here in Maine, about 125,000 pounds. New Jersey has a huge impact on this fishery and now they want to target fish 24 to 29 inches (which includes the 2015 year class) and fish over 42 inches through their trophy bonus tag program.

Have we forgotten what happened to the once robust 2011 year class as the result of an ill-conceived Conservation Equivalency from Maryland, a habitual offender of overfishing? Now New Jersey is about to decimate the 2015 year class if they are allowed to set their slot limit to take fish starting at 24 inches. Is Maine ok with that?

Maryland is also pushing a proposal that includes a continuation of their trophy fishery for bass over 35 inches and a 2 fish a day allowance for charter and party boat anglers – both of which go against the decision at the October ASMFC meeting to move to 1 fish a day at 18 inches for all of Chesapeake Bay, which was supported by 84% of the public comment.

Some Conservation Equivalency proposals look good on paper but fall short in meeting the desired results. All of these CEs have met the requirements of the Striped Bass Technical Committee but so have all of the past proposals and many have been a disaster. The Technical Committee has said that there is a high degree of uncertainty that these measures will meet mortality reduction goals. They say clearly that they have no idea how much overall striped bass mortality will be reduced by such disparate regulations.

This entire plan to reduce overall striped bass mortality by 18% was built with the assumption that the new regulations would be effective coastwide and baywide. It was presented to the public in the same way. It was supported by a huge percentage of the public input and approved by the ASMFC Striped Bass Board this fall. It’s no wonder that so many people have lost confidence in ASMFC.

Maine has often been a leader in striped bass management and conservation. Our adoption of mandatory circle hook use ahead of any ASMFC requirement is but one example of such forward thinking. I hope the Maine board members and ASMFC Chair, Commissioner Pat Keliher, will continue to lead by holding New Jersey and Maryland to the decision of the board and the expectations of the overwhelming majority of the stakeholders.

At next Tuesday’s ASMFC meeting I urge that Maine vote to approve only those CEs that would give us all one consistent slot limit coastwide and one consistent slot for all of Chesapeake Bay.

 

Here's my recap of the Thursday meeting:

To all of the passionate striped bass anglers, guides, and tackle shop owners who showed up in Yarmouth for the DMR hearing on Thursday - thank you. I've heard from a couple of you that the crowd was decidedly larger than the group that gathered this fall to provide public input into the proposed Addendum VI options. It's encouraging to see rising involvement as the challenges to responsible management grow.

Having Commissioner Pat Keliher present to hear discussion, questions, and on the record comments was incredibly important for our objectives. When Pat joined in, providing context, history, explanations and a patient ear it served to make our investment of time even more worthwhile. What was scheduled to be a routine rule-making hearing quickly evolved into an hour plus question and answer session. The questions and comments were excellent, across the board. And Pat's statements about the cascade of Conservation Equivalencies precipitated by the decision of the striped bass board to allow each state to target an 18% reduction in mortality were telling. The ASMFC meeting next Tuesday will be interesting for sure.

One thing that is not in doubt is that the Maine delegation heard us, loudly and clearly. Our expectations of them can not be misconstrued and they know that we will be following up with them after the meeting.

The number of people who stepped forward to comment on the record was impactful. It's not an easy or comfortable thing to do, especially the first couple of times, but it is critically important and needs to become our habit for future public hearings. I've spoken with a number of people in attendance who submitted their comments in writing prior to the event. This too becomes easier and more comfortable over time. I know of other folks who wanted to attend the meeting but couldn't make it fit into the schedule of life. They have or will comment via email and hope to join in person at the next go-round. And there will be a next-go round, and one after that, with more to follow.

I suspect that the results of the meeting on Feb. 4 will be mixed, with some news to cheer and other decisions to fight. We can't afford to wait until the next round of rule-making hearings to express our concerns, offer our suggestions, learn more about the process and hold our fisheries managers accountable. I don't know what form or forum that will be, but the need and interest is clear.

 

And here's the link to the article with more info on CE's and what lies ahead:

https://saltwaterguidesassociation.com/striped-bass-at-the-asmfc-2020-winter-meeting/

It's not too late to participate in this process. The article above gives good guidance on what you can write and how to get your view point to the people who are deciding the fate of this fishery.

Peter

Capt. Peter Fallon

Gillies & Fallon Guide Service, LLC