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Joint ASMFC/MAFMC meeting update

Big cuts for bluefish, while scup and black seabass dodge a bullet

On Dec 10th and 11th the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met jointly to complete 2020 recreational fishing specifications for bluefish, summer flounder, scup and black seabass.  Here’s what happened. 

Bluefish

If you read our summary of the October meeting, you know that an operational assessment released back then determined that bluefish are “overfished.”  Although, due to an anomalous year of low bluefish landings, “overfishing” was not occurring, not in 2018 anyway.  In other words, yes, the stock has fallen below a scientifically determined spawning stock biomass threshold, yet in 2018 because landings were so low – likely due to a lack of availability – we weren’t effectively removing fish at a rate that the stock couldn’t sustain.  Still, it appears overfishing was occurring pretty much throughout the entire time series, save for 2018. 

This is problematic, because by all indications 2018 was an unusual year.  2016 and 2017 landings were almost 60% higher than 2018, and the landings in 2019 are forecasted to be almost 30% higher.

While there’s been plenty of criticism of the accuracy of the recreational survey numbers (MRIP – Marine Recreational Information Program), from an on-the-water perspective, this does make some sense.  Almost everyone has noticed a real decline in bluefish availability.  And things really tanked last year (2018).  But yes, there seems to have been a small uptick in bluefish availability this year (2019).

At any rate, to avoid what were going to be extraordinarily constraining measures, the Councils Monitoring Committee recommended we base the 2020 projections on 2018 harvest levels, rather than projected 2019 harvest or an average of a number of years.  It is entirely within the realm of the law to do this, but it probably goes without saying that this is VERY risky, and greatly increases the chance that there will be a large overage in 2020. 

The rationale for such a decision, while not clearly articulated (on the record anyway) is that this is just a band-aid.  As part of federal law, if a stock is determined to be overfished, a rebuilding plan must be put in place in no more than 2 years.  The Council had scoped a Bluefish Allocation Amendment last year, and made a decision at this meeting to include a rebuilding plan as part of that amendment moving forward.  And this will likely change everything by 2022. 

Furthermore, as mentioned in our October Summary, the MRIP recalibration resulted in effort increase estimates for bluefish that were more than three times what we thought they were.  As a result though, the operational assessment determined that bluefish biomass would be about twice as high as previously believed.  Still, three times the effort and only twice the biomass doesn’t add up.  The stock is still overfished, and overfishing has been occurring for a LONG time – the entire time series – save for 2018. 

Not only that, but the way the numbers shake out with the MRIP recalibration, it doesn’t look like we’ve EVER come close to achieving the target biomass – a level which a rebuilding plan will require us to achieve.  Yes, that’s because we haven’t been at a fishing mortality target needed for that to happen, but it’s hard to say with a straight face that bluefish weren’t abundant/fully rebuilt during the boom years.  And then, of course, what are the implications of rebuilding a species like bluefish that eats anything and everything to levels we’ve never seen before, will be a question that we need to ask.  There are plenty of managers and fishery professionals who are indicating that we need to revisit those biomass and fishing mortality reference points, and possibly create more reasonable ones.  The only way that can happen though is through a full-on benchmark stock assessment, and there isn’t one scheduled until 2021. 

So…  In short, the Monitoring Committee and ultimately the Council and Commission appear to be taking the least impactful kick-the-can/wait-and-see approach.  Like I said, a band-aid until all this can be sorted out. 

“Least impactful” may not be the best way to describe it though, because even using 2018 landings as a proxy for 2020, the regulations are going to change quite a bit.  Here are the coastal regulations we ended up with: 

A 3-fish bag limit for anglers and a 5-fish limit for the “for hire” fleet

Keep in mind that’s a pretty big jump from the 15-fish limit we had last year.  I should note here that we could have chosen a higher bag limit, but it would have had to come with, at the very least, a 16” size limit.  And given the importance of the snapper (juvie bluefish) fishery, as well as the fact that most anglers prefer to keep smaller fish for the table and let the larger ones go, that was ruled out. 

I should be clear here that yes, this is a wait-and-see approach, but there is a pretty high probability that there will be an overage next year.  And neither the rebuilding plan, nor the benchmark stock assessment will be completed in time to effect 2021 regulations.  So, because we’re dealing with an “overfished” stock, there will be very real accountability measures, which will include pound-for-pound paybacks.  And that will translate into something FAR more constraining than a 3- and 5-fish bag limit.  And that won’t be good.

Stay tuned…

SCUP

It looked like we might face a VERY large decrease in the scup bag limit (possibly from 50 fish to three), but we managed to avoid any cuts this year because of a number of variables. 

Yes, the MRIP recalibration drove effort way up for this fishery, and it looks like we have been exceeding our recreational harvest limit for a LONG time, yet the stock is still a good 200% above the target spawning stock biomass. 

How?  Well the commercial scup fishery, which is allocated 78% of the resource, doesn’t really catch its quota, like ever.  The market just isn’t there for these fish, which generally sell for under $1 a pound.  Between 2015 and 2018, it only landed between 55% and 84% of its scup quota.

As a result, even with the higher than expected recreational catch estimates, scup overall do not appear to be experiencing overfishing because the commercial side isn’t catching the entire quota.  Thus, unless there’s some sort of wild increase in commercial landings, which is very unlikely, there appears to be little to no risk to the stock by allowing the recreational harvest to remain at status quo for 2020, at least until management issues (i.e. reallocation between the commercial and recreational sectors) can be resolved.   

Because of this management situation, healthy stock status, and catch projections below the 2020 acceptable biological catch, the board voted for status quo measures. 

BLACK SEABASS

Black seabass were also facing constraining measures due to higher than expected landings that came with the MRIP recalibration, in addition to a spawning stock that, while still large (estimated to be 240% over the target spawning stock biomass) has been steadily declining in size since 2014.

Yet, it was noted that spawning stock biomass has remained very high despite multiple consecutive years of overages, going back to at least 2015.  

It was also noted that constraining the recreational fishery under current high levels of availability and further restrictions on harvest would likely increase discard mortality. 

While yes, the stock appears to be in decline, there was some contention that we could expect to see continued periodic above average year classes due to mild winters that have come along with climate change. 

And it was also noted that availability of black sea bass to anglers in 2020 may decline due to a midyear 59% increase in the commercial quota. 

And lastly, it is very likely that the commercial sector won’t fully utilize their quota as more than one commercial rep has expressed concern that such a large increase in quota could wreak havoc on the market, driving prices way down. 

So, the Monitoring Committee and eventually the Board and Council recommended status quo measures for 2020.

REALLOCATION

We covered this in the October Summary, but the short version is that 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 believe that those baseline allocations weren’t right at all.  Given the analysis the council did, it looks like the recreational allocation should have been higher in every case.

At this meeting, both black seabass and scup made it REALLY obvious that there’s a need to relook at allocation.  To that end, the Council has embarked on a Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Seabass Allocation Amendment.  We were presented with a scoping document at the meeting, which we approved, and you can expect a public hearing schedule to be posted soon. 

Despite the fact that it doesn’t appear that the commercial sector wants or needs all the fish it has with the black seabass and scup fisheries, it’s become very clear they don’t want to see any real allocation shift, and for sure I can understand why. For one, It sets an uncomfortable precedent for those guys, and I get that.  But in the sake of fairness, and avoidance of all-out chaos, if/when we have to go from a 50-fish to a 3-fish bag for scup, we’re going to have to go down that road. 

The commercial sector’s arguments about the lack of recreational accountability are not lost on us either.  Why should anglers get more fish if they overfish and get away with it every year?  There should be, there has to be, some real accountability with the recreational fleet, instead of this ad hoc stuff we have going on now, where every year there’s an overage and we figure out a way to get out of it.  Once we get all this allocation stuff sorted out, and there’s a fair distribution that reflects the reality of the two fisheries, well, then that will likely be the next step. 

The timeline on the Allocation Amendment is around two years.  Stay tuned and we’ll keep you updated on how this develops.