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@ ASMFC: MENHADEN, STRIPED BASS, BLUEFISH AND BLACK SEABASS

ASMFC met April 30th to May 3rd, here’s what went down

By Capt. John McMurray

The Spring 2018 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meeting took place last week, and of course, we were there.

While there were a number of topics discussed, and actions taken, in the interest of simplification and providing readers with just the need-to-know information, the below is what we feel is of real importance to anglers.

Let’s start with Menhaden…

As we’ve covered here recently, the state of Virginia is really darn close to being out of compliance with their menhaden fishery. For context, see THE TRUTH ABOUT MENHADEN AND LOCALIZED DEPLETION.

The short version is that back in November, the Menhaden Management Board reduced the Chesapeake Bay reduction-fishery quota (the “Bay cap”) from 87,000 metric tons to 51,000 metric tons, a precautionary measure to ensure there wasn’t a big escalation of fishing pressure in a critical nursery area not only for menhaden, but for striped bass and a host of other things that eat them. 51,000 metric tons was simply an average of the 5 most recent years of catch data, so really, the reduction fishery wasn’t suffering any “hardship” here.

Still, industry whined and moaned and got the state’s prior Governor to order Virginia’s Marine Resources Commission to appeal the decision. Once Governor Northam took office he put the kibosh on that right quick, and the appeal was pulled a day before the Commission had planned to make a ruling.

Unfortunately, menhaden is one of the few species that isn’t managed by Virginia’s Marine Resources Commission, and is instead managed by the state legislature (read politicians).

Thus Northam, who by all accounts appears to put foresight, the public interest, sustainable fisheries, and ecosystem health above short term economic gain, proposed legislation that would bring Virginia into compliance, specifically with the Bay Cap. Unfortunately, the Virginia legislature didn’t pass it.

I should be clear here that the “reduction fishery” (AKA Omega Protein) is the large-volume/low-value industry that nets menhaden en masse, grinds them up and boils them down into fish-oil, fishmeal etc. What we’re talking about here is one big Canadian-owned company that is known to make donations state politicians. I think you see where we’re going here.

At the May Menhaden Management Board meeting, a motion was put forth to declare the Commonwealth of Virginia out of compliance. If such a motion passed, the Commission’s Policy Board would have more than likely moved to find VA out of compliance. Then the Commission would have sent a letter to the Secretary of Commerce (Wilbur Ross) informing him of such finding.

A few things could then have happened. Secretary Ross could have agreed with the finding and shut down the state’s menhaden fishery, or he could have disagreed and given industry the go-ahead to knock the crap out of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay. While we do our best to leave politics out of these updates, given the Trump Administration’s track record on this stuff, there is a good chance that it would have sided with industry on this. And that would’ve been a bummer, on so many levels.

For better or worse, a substitute motion was passed, which would “initiate” a non-compliance finding. However, a final decision was postponed until the Commission’s Summer Meeting in August 2018. In the interim, the Commission will send a letter to VA stating its intent move forward with a noncompliance finding in August if Virginia has not passed legislation that brings it into compliance with the 51,000 metric ton Bay cap.

This motion passed unanimously. There were several reasons that happened. For one, Virginia’s legislature is still in session, and could still pass legislation to bring the sate into compliance. From what I understand, there are folks in the VA state government working toward that result. Also, the reduction fishery is just beginning its season, and projections show it is highly unlikely to exceed the Bay cap prior to August. Last, I don’t believe anyone on the board wanted to take chances with the Secretary of Commerce, so they wanted to give Virginia every chance to come into compliance.

So where are we now? Once the Commission sends the letter, Virginia is officially on notice.

It’ll be VERY interesting to see how this shakes out. The letter may light a fire under the legislature, or it may not.

If it doesn’t, and this decision goes to the Department of Commerce, we’ll need to rally the troops to let Secretary Ross know where anglers stand on this.

Stay tuned!

Striped Bass

Equally import was the discussion on striped bass.

A benchmark stock assessment is currently being conducted and is scheduled for completion/peer-review this fall.

Given concerns by some Commissioners (ahem, those from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey) that the reference points used to manage striped bass since 2003 (i.e. fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass targets and thresholds) may be too conservative and not allow enough harvest, the stock assessment scientists were looking for guidance from the Striped Bass Management Board on whether or not they should change/liberalize the current reference points, and if so, what level of risk of overfishing they should deem “acceptable” when developing new ones.

We wrote about this back in October. WITH STRIPED BASS, HERE WE GO AGAIN.

Since then, a working group composed of Striped Bass Management Board members, members of the Striped Bass Advisory Panel, Technical Committee Members, as well as Commission staff created and distributed a survey designed to gauge satisfaction with current striped bass management regimen to the Board and Advisory Panel members.

The results showed very little consensus, although one thing did stand out. Almost all participants wanted a “Broad age structure with high abundance of larger, older fish.”

Still, because the current reference points are based on striped bass abundance levels when the stock was declared recovered in 1995, some Board members expressed concern that the current biomass targets couldn’t be achieved, given all the average to below average production we’ve seen during the last 14 years, without placing extraordinary constraints on the fishery.

Of course, we took issue with that. Because if something has changed that reduced striped bass productivity, that’s a reason to be more cautious, not less. It also provides more reason for maintaining a good age structure in the stock. Yet without a doubt, some some Board members don’t seem to comprehend this logic.

Regardless, where this shook out was a motion directing the technical folks to provide the Board with a range of reference point options from risky to less risky, with the status quo being part of that range.

Those reference point options will, once the stock assessment is complete, be presented to the Striped Bass Management Board, who will presumably pick an option for management use.

We will have to be diligent here. As soon as we get these reference point options, ALL striped bass fishermen will need to weigh in.

We will have to let our states’ Commissioners know, loudly and clearly, that we want/need striped bass to be managed conservatively, so there are an abundance of them in the water, so that we have the opportunity to catch them, so that the businesses that depend on them can survive.

Being more risky with our management regimen, and allowing a greater level of harvest, is a bad idea on a number of levels.

BLUEFISH

Both the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (the Council) and ASMFC were presented with a bluefish scoping document, intended to go out to public very soon.

The Council and Commission are looking into a possible reallocation of the bluefish resource—not just commercial/recreational but state allocation as well—and the scoping document is intended to generate public comment.

Bluefish management is tricky because the way it is managed now, if the recreational sector doesn’t catch their entire quota, it can be transferred to the commercial side.

This is problematic (and annoying) because the bluefish fishery is, for the most part, a catch-and-release fishery, at least for the majority of recreational stakeholders. So many of those fish we throw back, for conservation reasons and so that we or someone else can presumably catch them again, are technically all given to the commercial users. And that is certainly not the intent of those releases.

The fear here is that all those released alive will simply be allocated to the commercial side as part of a new reallocation scheme.

At the meeting, we made it clear that managers could consider recreational encounters and availability, instead of just yield, particularly given the history of the bluefish fishery. On the recreational side, this is a fishery that is valued for sport rather than meat. And we requested that there should be some analysis or quantification of fish released, and there should be some analysis regarding the value of keeping fish in the water. Those numbers should certainly be considered when reviewing bluefish allocations. In other words, part of the recreational quota should be considered fish in the water for anglers to encounter.

This issue is something we will certainly keep an eye on. Public hearings for this will be very important. The recreational community needs to articulate why the bluefish release fishery is so important, and why the Council and Commission need to think about managing fish in the water, rather than managing the resource simply for extraction.

Stay tuned.

BLACK SEABASS

As covered in our last newsletter, the Northern states got screwed with the last seabass regional measures. That’s largely because there’s been a definitive northward migration of black seabass in the last several years. The center of the biomass seems to have shifted to the waters off the states between New York and Massachusetts, and away from the waters off states between New Jersey and North Carolina.

Unfortunately, while to some extent the current regional allocation takes “available” biomass into account, it still relies too much on historical catch in states that used to host way more fish than they have now.

In response, the northern states (New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts) appealed the regional allocation at this meeting, and got a few more fish, although not nearly enough. The revised management program was developed to meet the needs of the Northern Region without impacting the remaining states.

What was perhaps more noteworthy though was that the board initiated another management action to deal with the obvious redistribution of fish and its impact on the 2019 recreational fishery. The board also tasked the Plan Development Team to develop a white paper to consider the impacts of changes in black sea bass abundance and distribution on the management of the commercial fishery.

It is our hope that such actions will correct some of current inequities between the southern and Northern states that currently exist because of an outdated allocation system.

Stay tuned…

There’s a lot coming down the pike on menhaden, striped bass, bluefish and black seabass.

There will certainly be areas we can engage, and we will absoultely let you know about them!

 

 

 

 

 

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