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STRIPED BASS AND MENHADEN HEADLINE ASMFC MEETING, PLUS IMPORTANT CHANGES IN NEW YORK

By Capt. John McMurray

As is usually the case, we report on all management meetings relevant to the conservation-minded fishing community.  While there were many issues addressed at this meeting, striped bass was of course at the forefront, with menhaden a close second. 

Before getting to those two issues, it’s important to note changes in New York.

Changes in New York

In January, Democrats took control of the New York State Senate, and now chair all of the Senate’s standing committees.  The new Chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, which is responsible for all marine fisheries legislation, is Senator Todd Kaminsky, who represents New York’s ninth Senate District.

That is good news for those of us who believe in conservation, sustainability, and the intrinsic and economic value of healthy and abundant marine resources.  Senator Kaminsky has already sponsored a bill that would prohibit the purse seining of menhaden (aka “bunker”)  in New York State waters.  That bill, which would eliminate any chance that the high volume/low value “reduction” fishery for menhaden could gain a foothold in New York waters, was passed by the Senate this week; it has also been approved by the Assembly and forwarded to the Governor, who is expected to sign it into law. 

Until such bill becomes law, New York runs the risk of large high-volume boats coming into its waters, surround bunker schools with their huge nets, and scoop up fish by the hundreds of thousands.  Such actions would quickly deplete local forage fish concentrations, and deprive local striped bass, bluefish, and humpback whales of an important source of food. 

We are making particular note of Senator Kaminsky’s new position since, as a result, he has also become New York’s legislative appointee to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).  As such, he has appointed the author (me) as his  proxy at the Commission.  I take that responsibility very seriously and will do my absolute best to represent the concerns of the Senator and the interests of New York State at ASMFC.

Let’s get on to striped bass. 

Striped Bass

The Striped Bass Board met Wednesday to discuss the 2018 “preliminary” benchmark stock assessment.  Such assessment hasn’t yet been finalized due to the Government shutdown.

As most of us already knew, the new assessment makes it very clear that the striped bass stock is “overfished” and “overfishing” is occurring.  Based on the most recent and best-available science, the female spawning stock biomass is below (well below, in this case) the abundance level that defines a healthy and fully-rebuilt stock; the current fishing mortality rate is also too high to maintain the stock at such a healthy level of abundance. 

That’s not terribly surprising to those of us who have witnessed a steady, on-the-water decline in the striped bass population over the last decade. 

There was some discussion about whether the spawning stock biomass reference points were set too high, but in the end, there was wide agreement that all the “overfished” and “overfishing” management “triggers” were exceeded, and that something needed to be done. 

A motion, which passed with only one dissenting vote, tasking ASMFC staff (the Technical Committee) with providing the Striped Bass Board, at its May meeting, with the reductions in harvest needed to reduce fishing mortality and end overfishing, and also with at least one example of a combination of size limits, bag limits and/or seasons (for both the coastal fishery and the fishery in the Chesapeake Bay) that would achieve such reduction.  

I should note here that nothing in the motion actually addresses rebuilding, but just what it would take to get fishing mortality back on track.  Actually rebuilding the stock may take more constraining measures. 

While we certainly would have liked to have seen the Striped Bass Board initiate an Addendum that would have ended overfishing and started the striped bass back stock on the road to recovery, because the results of the stock assessment are still “preliminary” – and we should be clear here that they are not expected to change – that wasn’t possible. 

We should also be clear that there is no chance that any new management measures will be put in place this year.  Even if the Striped Bass Board decided to take emergency action in May after it had received the final stock assessment, management measures couldn’t be finalized until the fall; thus, regulations couldn’t be implemented until 2020. 

All that said, such work by the technical committee should set up the basic framework for an Addendum, which could and hopefully will be initiated at the May meeting. 

The addendum process generally takes two Commission meetings to complete, although it could and often does take longer.  Assuming an addendum is initiated in May, final action could take place in October, with regulations implemented for the 2020 fishing season.  Even if such action was delayed to the February meeting, we would still likely see regulations in place for 2020.

However, at this point, it is anything but certain that will happen.  There are clearly some Commissioners who seek to take striped bass management in a different direction.  Such Commissioners, who are primarily from Maryland and Delaware, expressed interest in developing a full Amendment to the management plan, which could adopt less conservative fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass reference points, change the goals and objectives of the plan to favor higher harvest levels, and amend the triggers for management action. 

The intent is to lower the standards that define a healthy striped bass stock, an effort they try to justify with the baseless argument that the current spawning stock biomass target is too difficult to achieve.  Such lowered standards would place the long-term health of the spawning stock at additional risk; since that is contrary to the current objective of the management plan, it would require a new plan amendment to put them in place.  That would take a minimum of two years to prepare. 

That, in itself, poses a problem. Currently, Amendment 6 to the Striped Bass Fishery Management plan is pretty clear that overfishing needs to be addressed within a year. 

And so the battle lines are drawn.  Where this will shake out is anyone’s guess.  It will probably come down to a couple of votes, with the northern states (Maine to New York) pushing for the addendum process and ending overfishing in the 2020 fishing year, while some states south of that push for an Amendment that would not only delay badly needed conservation action, but could also significantly alter the science-based reference points currently used to manage the stock, lowering the bar for how ASMFC should define a “healthy” striped bass stock.    And THAT would be bad, for all of us. 

Perhaps it’s naive, but I am confident that reason and common sense will win this one.  Stay tuned.  Because once an Addendum or Amendment is initiated, there will be hearings and other opportunities for public input.  We’ll make sure you know the where and when on those.   

The EEZ and the Block Island Transit Zone

For context on this, see Straight Talk on the EEZ.  The greatly simplified version is that the Feds are asking for advice from the Striped Bass Board on whether or not a piece of federal water north and west of Block Island, Rhode Island should be opened up to striped bass fishing (Note: federal waters have been closed to striped bass fishing for over 30 years).  At its October 2018 meeting, the Striped Bass Board delayed providing such advice until after the results of the 2018 Striped Bass Benchmark Stock Assessment were released. 

At this week’s meeting, Board members were in general agreement that any such opening would increase fishing mortality and would thus be unwise given the conclusions presented in the new stock assessment.  Thus, in a nearly unanimous vote, the Board agreed to task staff with drafting a letter expressing ASMFC’s opposition to opening the Transit Zone to striped bass fishing, which letter shall be reviewed, and hopefully approved at the May Board Meeting, after a final version of the stock assessment has been made available for Board review. 

Maryland CircleHooks

It’s also worth noting that the Striped Bass Board reviewed a report on the effectiveness of Maryland’s new circle hook regulations. 

The Striped Bass Board permitted Maryland to reduce its minimum size from a 20 to 19-inch fish in 2018, in order to placate a charter boat industry that wanted to kill  smaller fish; in exchange for requiring that in-line circle hooks be used for most bait fishing for striped bass. 

The combined changes were deemed to have “conservation equivalency” with Maryland’s previous regulations, based on a state study that claimed that the use of circle hooks would substantially reduce the number of striped bass that die after being released by recreational fishermen. 

Given that the new stock assessment found that 48 percent of all striped bass fishing mortality was caused by recreational discards, any such effort to reduce discard mortality has important implications for the health of the stock.  While Maryland’s conservation-equivalent regulations were to remain in place for both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the Striped Bass Board required that Maryland provide a report on their performance at the Board’s February 2019 meeting.

The report revealed that about 90 percent of Maryland striped bass anglers complied with the circle hook rule; even so, there was no gain in overall fishing mortality; it is likely that overall mortality increased by about 6percent morethen would have been killed if Maryland had stayed at a 20” minimum size with no circle-hook requirement.  Maryland will continue such a circle hook requirement for the 2019 fishing season and report back next year. 

What does this mean for anglers elsewhere on the coast?  A coastwide circle-hook requirement could possibly be used to reduce recreational discard mortality, and Maryland might, to some extent, be validating that approach, although there are a host of related issues that could impact its effectiveness, which we don’t have the space to get into here. 

Regardless, it should be something we all keep in mind going forward, as one of the big takeaways from this meeting is that recreational discards are significant.  And managers seem to really want it addressed.   

But for now, let’s move on to menhaden. 

Menhaden

The Menhaden Board met Thursday morning to review the “Synthesis of Scientific Findings of Atlantic Menhaden’s Role in the Chesapeake Bay Ecosystem.”  Such a review didn’t really tell us much.  While it’s intuitive to anyone who spends more than a few days on the water that, when you remove hundreds and thousands of pounds of an important forage resource from a watershed, it can and will have cascading ecosystem effects, the staff concluded that scientists can’t determine whether or not localized depletion is occurring or can occur in the Bay because it’s so difficult to quantify.

More importantly, the Menhaden Board met to consider a motion from the August 2018 meeting  – which put off a decision to find the Commonwealth of Virginia out of compliance with a cap on the amount of menhaden that the reduction industry can take out of the Chesapeake Bay. 

It’s important to note that, while the cap hasn’t gotten close to being exceeded (likely because of availability) the Virginia legislature has still refused to codify the cap.  Technically, that means they aren’t in compliance with ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management plan.

After some discussion, the board moved to postpone indefinitely, a non-compliance finding, unless or until Virginia exceeds the cap. If the cap is exceeded, the Board can reconsider the issue of compliance. The motion also committed the Board to consider action to modify the Bay Cap after it completes its development and implementation of “ecological reference points” – which will presumably show the trade-offs between leaving fish in the water and extracting them.  Such reference points will hopefully be available for management use by 2020.

This is not terrible, but it’s not great either.  In the end, the board had little choice but to avoid a non-compliance finding as NOAA Fisheries has been clear, on the record that there wasn’t sufficient science to support the concept of “localized depletion” in Chesapeake Bay, and thus that the Secretary of Commerce was unlikely to endorse any non-compliance finding made by ASMFC.  What is unclear at this point is whether or not we will have the science moving forward.  All indications are that we won’t. 

Stay tuned on this, as it will likely heat up again soon. 

Conclusions:

So, here’s what’s up.

On menhaden, well, we wait.  Ecosystem reference points, available next year, will provide managers (and us) with clear information on the trade-offs between extraction and menhaden’s value to predators.  Such information will not require managers to adopt measures that will benefit either the marine ecosystem or the fishing community, but it will give us the ammunition to show the value of menhaden in the water, and advocate for their conservation.  And that is a BIG deal.  Stay tuned as this unfolds. 

On striped bass?  Overfished, and overfishing is occurring.  That now is a fact.  And it’s an actionable one.  There are no longer any good reasons for the Commission to avoid meaningful action to constrain the fishery. 

Yes, there will be push-back.  Most notable will be a strong, albeit indefensible effort from Maryland (and likely Delaware) to adjust the reference points through a two-year amendment process, so they don’t have to bite the bullet and conserve the stock.  Just given my read on the board discussion, I do not believe such a proposal has the wide support it would need to succeed.  But, I’ve been wrong before. 

Regardless, ASMFC is unlikely to take action to end overfishing and rebuild the stock without a concerted effort from conservation-minded striped bass anglers. There will be many opportunities for public comment as all this unfolds.  And readers will need to let commissioners know, loudly and clearly that availability and opportunity are way more important than low size limits and a few more dead fish.  Please stay tuned here…  We’re going to need to turn out in large numbers when all this starts to go down. 

One thing I want to be clear about here.  It IS NOT all doom and gloom.  History has shown that striped bass can and will come back if managers allow them to.  It is NOT an overstatement to say that the future of striped bass fishing depends on what goes down this year.  And frankly, a lot of this depends on our level of engagement as an economically relevant stakeholder. 

Managers need to hear from us.  And they will. 

Stay tuned.

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