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At the May ASMFC/MAFMC MEETING, Here’s What Went Down

Bunker and striper; Credit: John McMurray

Striped Bass, Menhaden, Bluefish & Recreational/Commercial Allocation Topped the Agenda

Last week the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met, in part, jointly with the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council to consider a number of issues. Of course, because of the COVID 19 pandemic, Commissioners and Council members met via webinar.

While just about all binding management actions were pushed off until we are able to meet in person, there were several relevant updates and subsequent discussions that we’ll briefly cover.

While striped bass wasn’t first on the agenda, it’s what the great majority of anglers are concerned about, so we’ll start there.

Striped Bass

If you follow these posts you full-well understand that the striped bass stock is overfished, and overfishing is occurring. The Commission’s Striped Bass Board sought to address this with “Addendum VI,” the intent of which was to reduce total striped bass removals, relative to 2017, by 18%.

Last year, Commission staff gave the board a suite of options to achieve such a reduction. What the board eventually voted on was a coastal slot limit of one fish between 28 and 35″. While we felt a high size limit (i.e. 35″) would best achieve the Addendum’s purpose, such a slot limit could still possibly do a LOT of good by protecting both those young, smaller fish and those larger, older, more fecund fish. But, that could only work if all states adopt it. In other words, it doesn’t make much sense to protect at 36″ fish in New York, only to have it swim across Ambrose Channel to get harvested in New Jersey.

That sort of coastal consistency wasn’t going to happen though, because the management plan allows for “conservation equivalency.” In other words, states can adjust their measures to whatever they want, as long as it achieves the required reduction in their states.

Now, here’s where things get messed up. Under a coastal one-fish slot limit – from 28 to 35″ – each state from Maine to North Carolina would actually take a different reduction in their states, because each state is different in terms of angler effort, prior catch, etc. For example, a state like Maine would take a much smaller percentage reduction than a state like New Jersey. That said, New Jersey, who would likely need to have taken a 40-plus-percent reduction, moved that each state who chose conservation equivalency would only have to achieve 18%. Surprisingly, that motion passed.

So, fast forward to where we are now. Those few states who did do conservation equivalency — NJ, DE, MD — (note, the great majority of coastal states are team players, and did not) kind of screwed things up. But… not terribly.

The staff presented an analysis of final Addendum VI measures in 2020, based on updated projections. And it turns out that such measures will add up to an estimated 15% reduction instead of an 18% reduction.

Does that indicate a successful action? No, it doesn’t. Reduce fishing mortality to achieve an 18% reduction in removals seems like a pretty straight forward goal. Clearly the Commission didn’t achieve it. Yet, the messaging is that it “would not significantly undermine the Board’s efforts to end overfishing.”

That is partially true. The probability of reducing fishing mortality to the target level went down from the scientifically acceptable standard of 50% to 42%. So yes, we may indeed address overfishing with this action, but even if we do, it appears unlikely that fishing mortality won’t be reduced to the level needed to fully rebuild the stock. Still, if you were to boil all this down, the Commission is really just saying “close enough.” Is that acceptable? We don’t think so.

There was mention of the COVID 19 pandemic’s possible effects on the 2020 fishing year. And the fact that striped bass fishing effort and removals appeared to be way down in 2018 and 2019, but a couple of things to note here. Anyone who thinks there will be a huge reduction in effort due to the coronavirus hasn’t seen the crowds in Raritan Bay. More people working from home/out of work could actually result in an increase in effort.

Have we experienced a reduction in effort (i.e. the 2018 and 2019 estimates)? I’d argue that it’s entirely possible that we have. Fewer fish around typically leads to less effort. No secret that when the fishing is good, more people go. That said, we can expect to see more effort in 2020, as all those 26″ fish we saw last year (presumably the strong 2015 year class) recruit into the “keeper” range. The point is that it’d be really foolish to assume we’re going to see less fishing moving forward, and so we need not be so cautious with meeting the reduction to a T.

But let’s move on.

Two motions were tabled in prior meetings, both of which were expected to be voted on at this one. Given this is the first time the board met via webinar, those motions were postponed until August. It’s worth touching on those motions here though, because we’ll most certainly need to deal with them in August.

The first motion sought to establish “accountability measures” specific to Addendum VI. In other words, if there are significant overages due to conservation equivalency measures, the state would have to adjust their measures to prevent it from happening again, or perhaps pay those overages back in the following year.

This was brought up at the February meeting because it had become pretty clear that some Commissioners intended to use conservation equivalency to get better regulations for their states. Back in 2015, Maryland’s conservation equivalency measures resulted in a massive overage, yet there was nothing that forced them to change those measures. Arguably this could have been why we ended up with such a poor showing along the coast of the 2011 year class (one of the biggest in recent history). We had all expected a big influx of 2011s along the coast, but it didn’t really happen, arguably because too many were killed before leaving the Chesapeake Bay. It’s not unreasonable to assume this is at least part of the reason we’re currently in an “overfished” state with striped bass.

Those states taking advantage of the conservation equivalency allowance now argue that the science isn’t accurate enough to establish accountability measures. That’s not entirely untrue, as after all, we’re dealing with surveys that weren’t intended for that sort of state-by-state, year-by-year management. But if that’s the case, that same science shouldn’t be used to establish state specific conservation equivalency measures.

At any rate, this will presumably be addressed in August.

The second postponed motion was to initiate an entirely new amendment which would basically put everything in the current fishery management plan back on the table for discussion and possible alteration. To many of us, this is unsettling. Changing the goals and objectives of the management plan could put far more emphasis on harvest rather than the availability that fuels the recreational fishery and that drives business up and down the coast.

Reference points — the overfished and overfishing targets and thresholds — would also be on the table. This could give Commissioners a chance to move the goal posts on what a healthy striped bass stock should look like, and what an acceptable level of fishing might be. Revisiting commercial/recreational allocation will also be part of this amendment, and we all know how contentious that will be. Lastly, the amendment will allegedly deal with rebuilding the stock within the time frame specified in Amendment 6 (10 years). But really, that won’t make much of a difference if we lower the spawning stock target and/or thresholds. So what exactly we’d be rebuilding to is anyone’s guess at this point.

The point of all this is that we’re set up for another long battle with striped bass – those who believe in and want good management that results in abundance and availability along the coast vs. those who simply want to liberalize regulations and maximize harvest.

It will be an interesting few years.

Menhaden

So, let’s get into menhaden.

As readers likely know the Commission has been working on “Ecological Reference Points” (ERPs) for the last several years. Currently menhaden is managed under a single species model. What that means is scientists try to determine how many menhaden we can take out of the stock and still have it be productive enough to continuously supply the commercial and recreational fisheries it supports. What that model doesn’t include is how many menhaden need to stay in the water for the predators that eat them. Well, the ERP models do indeed include that.

Back in February, we were presented with a distilled version of a model that simply accounts for the interactions of striped bass and menhaden. That model tries to answer the question of how many menhaden striped bass need to rebuild and stay at their spawning stock biomass target. Interestingly enough, the outcome appeared to be that we’d need a 40% reduction in allowable landings to account for striped bass diets. That doesn’t mean we’ll see a 40% reduction, because the Menhaden Board has been pretty conservative with menhaden management, understanding that these ERPs were coming, so don’t expect a big management change.

The board asked the folks working on the models to go back and add bluefish, weakfish, dogfish and herring. What they came back with was pretty technical and hard to understand if you don’t have a background in this stuff, but they presented a few different ecosystem scenarios that include those species.

The end result was that the board asked the working group to go back and complete their analysis and present a few simplified options to the board in August. Hopefully, the board will vote to implement one of those options, thereby completing a good two decades of advocacy to get menhaden managed for their prey value.

Bluefish

Since bluefish are managed by both the Council and the Commission, the Bluefish Board and the Council met to provide guidance on the development of management alternatives for the Bluefish Allocation and Rebuilding Amendment.

The board and Council determined that the following issues be considered for further development:

Fishery management plan goals and objectives, recreational/commercial allocations, recreational/commercial sector transfers, commercial allocations to the states commercial state-to-state quota transfers and separate allocations for the for-hire and private sectors of the recreational fishery and rebuilding the overfished stock.

The two management bodies are expected to reconvene jointly in June to refine the draft management alternatives.

A couple of things about the discussion to note here.

There was considerable dialogue about “catch vs. landings-based allocations.” What that means essentially is that instead of basing a recreational allocation on estimates of fish harvested by the recreational fleet, it would be based on total catch (including releases). It’s no secret that the large majority of fish caught by the recreational fleet are returned alive. So really, when allocations are determined, those fish and their availability to the catch and release fishery could and should be part of the recreational allocation. This is something that we’ve been advocating for, for an awful long time. Managing for fish in the water/availability makes sense, particularly for a fishery that is largely a release fishery dominated by the recreational side.

No decisions were made at this meeting. But just the fact that this idea is on the table is encouraging.

Second, as readers likely know the bluefish stock is overfished and overfishing is occurring. Because it is federally managed (by the Council), a rebuilding plan must be implemented within two years of the finding. And so the development of a rebuilding plan was included as part of this amendment. That said, staff recommends against this, and suggests separating it as its own action.

Not sure where this is going, but one thing I should make clear is that rebuilding bluefish will NOT be easy. With the new “MRIP” data recalibration, it looks like we’ve been overfishing bluefish for an awful long time. Getting fishing back down to a level where the fishing mortality target is not being exceeded will likely take some VERY constraining measures, and there will likely be A LOT of opposition to that.

Stay tuned.

Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Seabass Allocation Amendment

The Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Board met jointly with the Council to discuss two items: Potential management responses to COVID-19 impacts on recreational and commercial fisheries; and the development of draft alternatives for the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Commercial/Recreational Allocation Amendment.

A commissioner from New Jersey made the point that charter and party fleets are not allowed to fish right now and so recreational measures should be adjusted to allow those operations greater access when they are opened back up. There was a brief discussion on how the Commission might be able to address this. In the end, it was agreed upon that that the Commission’s Executive Committee would develop guidance for states to consider.

Re the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Commercial/Recreational Allocation Amendment, this was initiated last year, largely due to the recreational data (MRIP) recalibration that showed much greater recreational participation and effort than the prior surveys had. So it only stands to reason that the base years that were used to determine allocation didn’t paint an accurate picture of what the divisions were. And so the Council and Commission are now looking into ways to relook at allocation, and how to possibly alter allocation between the recreational and commercial fisheries.

The board and Council discussed possible draft alternatives for allocation changes, including allocations based on new data and/or new time periods, separate allocations for the party/charter fleet, and allocation transfers between sectors among other things. The board also supported the development of draft alternatives to address recreational accountability and catch accounting.

The fishery management action team will develop a range of draft alternatives for Council and board review at the June meeting.

Tautog

Lastly, the Commission’s Tautog Board considered a conservation equivalency proposal by the state of Rhode Island to increase the tautog bag limit for the state’s charter/party fleet. Although the one-fish increase technically would not affect the stock, Rhode Island’s proposal was rejected because, in addition to some technical problems with the proposal, it would create a different set of regulations between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as different measures for the recreational fleet and party/charter boats on the same bodies of water.

That’s it. Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know what goes down at the June meeting.