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Here’s What Went Down at October’s Joint MAFMC/ASMFC Meeting

Bluefish are overfished, and scup and black seabass face more cuts

A lot to process coming off this meeting.  And just about all of it has to do with the new MRIP data recalibration. 

MRIP – Marine Recreational Information Program – is the recreational fishing data-gathering program that employs in-person, telephone and mail surveys to estimate the number of trips saltwater anglers take and the number of fish they catch.  Fishery managers use that data when they are creating stock assessments, operational updates, performance reports etc., and, most importantly, to determine recreational harvest limits. 

With federally managed fisheries like summer flounder, scup, black seabass and bluefish, those harvest limits are usually determined each year at a joint Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC)/Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in October.  In December, at another joint meeting, recreational fishing measures (size and bag limits, seasons, etc.) are determined.

So here we are, coming off the October meeting.  Before we get into any species-specific reporting, it’s important to note recent developments with MRIP.  For a long time, the survey’s predecessor MRFSS (Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey) used a phone survey instead of a mail survey, and during the first few years, MRIP did the same.  But it became pretty clear early on with MRIP that phone surveys weren’t working.  Very few people have landlines anymore, there was difficulty in doing random call surveys with cell phone numbers and tying them to coastal areas, and with caller ID folks weren’t prone to answer calls from unfamiliar numbers.  The long and short of it is, they weren’t getting many usable intercepts with the phone calls.  And so, they moved to a mail survey. 

We are just now seeing the results of that.  In just about every fishery, it appears that prior surveys that used phone instead of mail intercepts had massively underestimated the recreational fishing effort.  And that has affected just about everything so far. 

Let’s start with bluefish. 

Bluefish
Most anglers can speak to the fact that has been a very discernable decline in the availability of bluefish over the last several years, more-or-less though-out their entire range.  So, it should be no surprise that a recent operational assessment determined the stock to be “overfished” (when a stock falls below a scientifically determined spawning stock biomass threshold). 

Interestingly enough though, “overfishing” isn’t occurring, or at least it wasn’t occurring in 2018.  In other words, we currently don’t appear to be harvesting fish at an unsustainable rate.

The increase in fishing effort estimates that came with the MRIP mail survey showed us that while we had been overfishing since the mid-80s, in 2018, likely because of the lack of availability, we dipped below the fishing mortality target for the first time. 

Another thing we should point out is that the increase in effort estimates from MRIP has really jacked up discard mortality estimates.  An estimated 15% of bluefish released don’t make it.  But when you multiply that against the increased effort, then you get A LOT more dead fish. 

What does all this mean?  For one, it means landings will be significantly constrained in 2020.  How the Council and Commission choose to do that will be determined in December after the Commission and Council receive recommendations from staff.  Editorializing here for a minute, we see no need for the current 15 fish bag limit that currently exists.  Yes, there are some folks who strive to keep that many and some businesses that promote “limiting out” on bluefish, but the reality is that most of the recreational fishing community keeps few bluefish, if any.  But we’re not at a place where we can even really discuss that yet.  We’ll have a pretty good idea of what the recreational management measures might be in late November, early December.  It’s entirely possible, in fact likely, that there will be some seasonal constraints discussed.   

That “overfished” designation with bluefish also means something else.   The Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires that should a stock become overfished, a rebuilding plan must be implemented within two years of such a finding. 

Without getting too much into the weeds here, not only does bluefish need to be rebuilt so that the spawning stock biomass is over the threshold, it needs to be rebuilt to a “target” spawning stock biomass that is quite a bit over that.  Therefore, such a rebuilding plan will likely result in constraining the fishery two years from now significantly more than the Council will in 2020.  In fact, according to the new MRIP data, we’ve never reached the spawning stock biomass target in the entire time series, which may be problematic in its own right. 

The Council is also moving forward with work on its Bluefish Allocation Amendment.  The intent of this action is to revisit the bluefish management plan’s goals and objectives, , state allocations, and the current quota transfer process where unused recreational quota is transferred to the commercial sector. 

This could have been VERY problematic for the recreational community.  Before the MRIP recalibration, it looked like we hadn’t been using near our full share of the resource.  Because of a provision in the management plan, that meant that we’d always transfer much of that unused quota to the commercial sector, making the whole catch-and-release for conservation reasons idea moot.  There were certainly some folks on the Council who believed we should just permanently reallocate those “unused” fish to the commercial fisher through the pending amendment.  Such reallocation advocates completely dismissed the idea that managing for live bluefish in the water was just as important, and perhaps more so than managing only for harvest. 

However, due to the new effort estimate increase in MRIP recalibration, it’s clear that anglers have actually fully utilized their quota for pretty much every year in the time series.  Thus, there is really no basis for a reallocation of quota. 

We should also note that, as a result of the initial scoping process for the amendment, the Council is fully aware of the value of fish in the water, not simply those harvested, and that abundance and availability to the recreational community is economically significant.

Now lets talk summer flounder, scup and black seabass. 

Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Seabass
The good news here is that, while summer flounder has suffered from 7 years of poor recruitment, it seems to have turned the corner.  Survey indices were above average, and there were other positive signs that the stock may be trending upward.  Thus, no changes are likely for 2020. 

Scup is a different story, though, and is likely the species where the new MRIP recalibration will cause the most problems. 

Since the rebuilding plan was put in place, scup has done quite well.  At the end of 2018, spawning stock biomass stood somewhere around 200% of the target level. 

Up until recently, it appeared that both the commercial and recreational fisheries had under performed, catching well under their allotted quotas each year.  Because of the MRIP recalibration and the recreational effort increase that came with it, now it appears that anglers were removing A LOT more fish than previously thought.  Still, while it looks like anglers were exceeding their harvest limit for a number of years, the biomass remains unquestionably high. 

So, due to the effort increase, to keep the recreational side from exceeding its harvest limit again, we’re looking at something along the lines of a 60% reduction in landings, even though the stock appears to be in no trouble. That may make some sense on paper, but from a practical perspective, it doesn’t particularly given the stock’s proliferation, even when recreational overfishing was occurring in prior years. 

What needs to be made perfectly clear here, though, is that perhaps that occurred because the commercial side consistently underfishes their quota, often by a significant amount.  Why that’s happened, market considerations, etc. isn’t relevant here.  What is relevant is that the while anglers overfished, the commercial side underfished and largely offset the recreational overages.  This speaks to a need for reallocation.  It only makes sense for the Council to take a good look at whether the current allocation model of 78% commercial and 22% recreational really makes sense.  We’ll get to that in a minute. 

In the meantime, NOAA fisheries is well aware of the circumstance here and have made it clear, on the record, that they will work toward a practical fix that is within the constraints of the Magnuson Act.  I could be wrong, but I have faith that they will.  Because if they don’t, there will be A LOT of push back here. 

Moving on to black seabass, we have the same sort of situation.  Except that the new operational assessment allows for a significant increase in landings.  Without getting into too much detail, while both the commercial and recreational sides will see their annual catch limit increase by almost 50%, the recreational side is again looking at a significant reduction–around 30%–in landings.  Why?  Because even with a big increase in the recreational harvest limit this year, the increased effort estimates showed that anglers were again fishing way over their allotted harvest limit for long periods of time, and that discards were more significant than they had previously thought. 

Like scup, the black sea bass spawning stock biomass is still way over the spawning stock biomass target even though it is trending downward and will likely be at the target in soon.  And like scup, the commercial side isn’t likely to fully utilize their entire quota, especially with a 50% increase that industry folks at the meeting said would cause “market chaos.”  NOAA fisheries is again looking for a short term “creative” fix that would avoid such a drastic cut while staying within the law.  However, this is another fishery that badly needs an allocation shift.

And that’s a good segue to the Councils reallocation action. 

Reallocation Amendment
Because the MRIP recalibration showed such a significant effort increase, dating all the way back to when the allocations were made, well, there’s good reason to argue that those allocations weren’t right at all.  Given the initial analysis the council did, it looks like the recreational allocation should have been higher in every case. 

The Council and Commission both voted to initiate action that would take a close look at current allocations and perhaps change them based on the new MRIP data, current and past sector performance and other factors.  But, this certainly does not mean that the Council will reallocate in every case, or any case.  Such allocation actions are almost always contentious, and we got a quick taste of that during the public comment period at this meeting.  But what this does mean is that the Council and Commission are going down this road, whether the commercial sector likes it or not. 

Changes to recreational approaches
Back in March, the Council and Commission established a steering committee to develop strategies to increase management flexibility and stability for jointly managed recreational fisheries (summer flounder, scup, black seabass and bluefish) while staying within the constraints of the Magnuson Act.   

At this meeting, we received an update on their work. 

In recent years, recreational measures often remained status quo, despite projected harvest exceeding recreational harvest limits.  Thus far, such decisions have been justified on an ad hoc basis.  As noted, above this will likely happen with scup and black seabass for 2020. 

The steering committee is working on guidelines that would offer clear guidance on how such decisions would be made moving forward.

For example, if biomass is above the target level, fishing mortality below the target, and/or above average or increasing recruitment, that would suggest that negative impacts on the stock may not result from maintaining status quo management measures when a reduction in harvest would otherwise appear to be needed.  On the other hand, maintaining the status quo may not be appropriate when data suggest that reductions in harvest are needed to prevent overages when poor stock health is indicated, or if stock rebuilding is required.

The objective is to develop a standard, repeatable methodology that can be applied each year. The steering committee agreed that these guidelines should only be applied when the stock status is not overfished and overfishing not occurring. This type of flexibility would not be appropriate for stocks under a rebuilding plan or stocks that are experiencing overfishing.

The steering committee also discussed the potential of using a two-year specifications cycle to provide greater stability in recreational management measures. The Council and Board currently have the ability to set multiple-year specifications; however, this approach would involve setting specifications for two years with a commitment to make no changes in interim years if stock is not overfished and overfishing not occurring.

A technical working group will be formed to carry out thorough analyses of such strategies.  We may see a joint amendment or framework action initiated in the near future to institutionalize such recommendations. 

The takeaway from this as we see it is that yes, the Council is struggling to figure out how to manage rebuilt and abundant stocks.  Because when such stocks increase and expand, of course, availability will increase effort and encounters, and push landings up above the recreational harvest limit.  Annual catch limits and accountability measures require the councils to react to such overages and constrain the fishery, often to an extent that may not be necessary for the health of the stock overall. 

All this said, such initial action by the Council to try and correct this demonstrates the flexibility we already have in the law to address such issues. 

We’re pretty sure that the answer isn’t to just get rid of such annual catch limits and accountability measures, because the likely result of that is massive overfishing.  Allowing the Councils to use the flexibility they have to address such an issue in a measured, thoughtful way, which is what’s happening here, is the right way to deal with this. 

Stay tuned…