Here are my initial reactions to what took place yesterday (Jan. 26, 2022) at the ASMFC Striped Bass Board winter meeting.
The Board finalized a draft of Amendment 7 to the Striped Bass Management Plan. Once approved, this Amendment will define the rules that the Board must (well...must is too often translated into should at ASMFC) follow as it makes management decisions for this species. Historically, amendments to the management plan have a lifespan of a decade or more. Three important background notes:
- Striped bass are overfished and overfishing is occurring. At a previous meeting the Board finally accepted their responsibility to rebuild this fishery by 2029.
- As John McMurray made clear early in the meeting, this Board has a consistent and well established habit of only acting when forced to act by their management plan rules. Although John didn't say it yesterday, I will add that such action, when it finally happens, then occurs at an excruciatingly slow pace.
- The draft Amendment now goes out for public comment and the board expects to finalize and approve this new Amendment 7 when it meets next in May or June. It is almost assured that we won't see any management rule changes for how we fish in the upcoming season.
Given all of the above, this new Amendment is a really big deal if you care about these fish and the fishery. Ok, on to some takeaways...
1. The draft of Amendment 7 is an incredibly complex document. Like make your head hurt complex. I expected that the Board would eliminate more of the options to present us with more streamlined, clear choices in how we want them to manage striped bass. Well I was wrong. This thing is a bear.
2. Plenty of potential pitfalls remain in this draft Amendment. Under each of the main categories, there are stronger "rules" and there are weaker "rules", and then in some cases there are awful "rules". What this means is that we have plenty of work ahead of us. Please refer back to John McMurray's point that this Board has no habit of being proactive, preemptive, or priescent.
3. Marty Gary ran an impressively efficient and inclusive meeting in his first turn with the gavel as the new Board Chair. He and the ASMFC staff had a sound plan going into the meeting. They held to that plan while allowing for appropriate flexibility. He included more opportunity for public comment throughout the proceeding than I can recall since I started following these meetings.
4. The Maine delegation, led by Megan Ware of the Department of Marine Resources, and backed by the commissioner of same, Patrick Keliher, continues to set the pace for responsible management of striped bass. Dirigo. If you're from Maine or went to a Jesuit school, you'll understand.
5. The next striped bass stock assessment (think of it as a population census) is due out in October of this year and many Board members expect that it will report bad news for the current state of these fish. I think they are right, based upon input from people who know a hell of a lot more about this fishery than me, and given what so many of us have been seeing on the water.
6. Provisions to protect significant year classes, specifically the 2015 year class, were removed from the draft. ASMFC stock assessment scientist Katie Drew told us that if we'd done so in 2018 when those fish began to be targeted and harvested in Chesapeake Bay, we could have made a difference in the total biomass of fish that would be spawning now and into future years. But we didn't and we missed the boat.
7. Recruitment will receive a lot of attention in the public comment period and at the spring Board meeting. We need to decide what recruitment figure or value will be used in calculations that predict how quickly this fishery can be rebuilt. Poor spawning success in the Chesapeake in most recent years has many people gravely concerned. Your input will decide how much weight the new Amendment places on this disturbing trend.
8. Recreational Release Mortality will also be the subject of much debate, along with Seasonal Closures and Spawning Area Closures. The Board's past inaction now has mandatory two-week, no-targeting closures on the table for consideration. That would mean two weeks during the season (not at a time when we aren't really catching stripers) when you wouldn't be allowed to fish for striped bass even if you intended to release them all.
9. The Board is ready to act swiftly once it receives the anticipated bad news in October so that management changes can take effect before the start of the 2023 season. You deserve much of the credit for this (temporary) change in behavior with your consistent message that the Board must take timely action. This also means that your work will not be done by the spring meeting of the Board. Adopting Amendment 7 is only one critical next step in restoring and sustaining this fishery. This isn't a marathon but rather an ironman.
10. Your voice matters. Board members continually referenced public input received throughout this process. Your comments at meetings last spring, your letters and emails to the Board, your conversations with individual Board members, your pressure over the years in so many forms and settings is making a difference. Most of the worst parts of the draft Amendment were removed prior to yesterday's meeting and Board members know you are paying attention. Many of them get that you are pissed. Time to kick it up a notch, if you'll pardon the phrase. So now, more than ever, you must be a part of the process. A part of the solution. In order to do so effectively, you are going to need help. Help in understanding this incredibly complex draft Amendment. Help in effective organization. Help in crafting and directing your input.
So here's my plea. Find the organization that speaks to you, support them, and rely on them to help inform your decisions and actions. I hope you'll take a look at the American Saltwater Guides Association. The materials that they produce to help us advocate effectively are impressive. Blog posts, webinars, podcasts, cheat-sheets, in person events. You don't need to be a guide to join or use their resources. You could start by signing up for the Masters of the Fly online event this Sunday evening at 8:00 pm to hear more from the folks at ASGA. As always, I welcome your feedback and questions.
Capt. Peter Fallon