News

Striped Bass & Menhaden Headline This Week’s ASMFC Meeting

Striped Bass

Good news with menhaden, but it’s likely the Commission will fall short on striped bass

Menhaden

So, here’s the good news. It is highly likely, after a good 20 years of advocacy by anglers and environmental groups, that we’ll see menhaden managed in the context of its value as a prey species, by as early as the 2021 fishing year, if things go okay.

If you aren’t familiar with the single species management concept, well, it’s pretty much how the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the Regional Fishery Management Councils have been managing fisheries since, well, forever.

Each species is managed in the context of yield. In other words, how many can we take out of the stock and still have it sustain itself at a certain level, without respect to the web of ocean life around it. We’ve been stuck with single species models – even with something that is so obviously important as forage like menhaden – since the science of fishery management began.

That seems to finally be changing. On Wednesday, the Commission’s Menhaden Management Board was presented with the first iteration of “Ecological Reference Points” for Menhaden. Explaining how they work is not easy. But the short version is that we can now determine, based on this new science, what level of menhaden harvest we can allow while still fishing striped bass at its fishing mortality target, which will presumably allow it to rebuild to its biomass target.

Now don’t get too excited, because where we stand right now in all of this is that the current level of menhaden harvest will allow striped bass to rebuild, and so there will likely be no constraining measures put on the menhaden harvest fleets. But there are a few important caveats here.

The first is that, with the single species stock assessment, the Commission could have allowed industry to harvest an additional 40% of the menhaden resources without overfishing technically taking place. And for sure, each year we did menhaden specifications, there was tremendous pressure from industry to loosen quotas, because the best available science at the time said we could. With the exception of a few smallish increases between 2014 and 2016, the Board had been reluctant to increase harvest until it had ecosystem reference points that would reveal approximately how much menhaden we need to leave in the water for predators.

So, because the Board was fairly precautionary with the quota, we stayed at a harvest level that appears to be pretty close to what the ecosystem model shows us is needed to rebuild stripers. And that essentially means we’re taking a 40% reduction in what could have been harvested using a single-species approach. It also means that there won’t be any more pressure to increase quota from industry, because the best available science now says we can’t—or, at least, we shouldn’t.

Also, you may have noted that I’m only talking about striped bass here. What about bluefish, weakfish, dog fish etc., not to mention marine mammals and birds?

They all matter. But here’s why I am, and why the Commission is, focusing on striped bass for now.

The scientists working on this stuff were able to determine that striped bass is the species most sensitive to shifts in menhaden abundance. For sure, those other species are sensitive, but from what we understand, to a smaller extent. And, well, ecosystem based fishery management is an incredibly complicated process. It will take a series of baby steps to get us to widespread implementation. The relationship between striped bass and menhaden appears to be the best place to start.

All this said, instead of putting the ecosystem reference points into play immediately, the Board voted to table a motion to do so until the May meeting, when we will presumably have more information on bluefish, weakfish and spiny dogfish interactions.

Stay tuned on this, but we’d be really surprised if the motion to adopt ecosystem reference points for menhaden didn’t pass in May.

Now, let’s get on to striped bass.

Striped Bass

It was a LONG meeting on Tuesday. Seven hours to be exact, consisting of plenty of back and forth, and hemming and hawing amongst states loath to implement any real conservation measures that would actually reduce harvest. The Striped Bass Board chair described it as “chaotic”, but we certainly wouldn’t describe it as atypical. The truth is that it was a good demonstration of why many believe the ASMFC management process is a dysfunctional system in bad need of repair. Still, it didn’t go as badly as we had expected.
But before getting to what went down, let’s cover the basics on how we got here.

How we got here:

As readers likely know, the 2018 Benchmark Stock Assessment told us what just about every angler suspected – the stock is overfished, and overfishing is occurring. To clarify, we are below the “spawning stock biomass” level that the peer-reviewed stock assessment used to define an unhealthy stock. And we are currently fishing at a mortality rate that will keep us well below that level, and could lead to further decline.

While there were certainly warning signs, and corrective action could have/should have been taken years ago, to its credit, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Board initiated Addendum VI fairly quickly after receiving the stock assessment. The intent of Amendment VI is to get us back to a fishing mortality target that would allow the stock to rebuild.

While there was some debate about adhering to the 10-year rebuilding timeline required in the management plan, Addendum VI never directly addressed rebuilding; instead, it ended up focused on ending overfishing and reducing fishing mortality to the target level by requiring an 18% reduction from 2017 fishing mortality levels in the 2020 fishing year. The draft addendum contained a number of options (i.e. size and bag limits) designed to achieve a coastal reduction of at least 18%.

It was always our preference that the Commission go with a high size limit (in this case 35″) to protect the one or two good year classes (i.e. the 2015s) that will soon recruit into the coastal fishery, so they could spawn once or twice before becoming vulnerable to harvest. And there was way more public support for that option than any other. But as is often the case at the Commission, things didn’t go our way. Instead the Board decided on a coastal recommendation of a one-fish “slot limit” between 28 and 35″.

There was some disappointment, but there was also optimism that such a slot limit could do some real good by protecting those older, larger, more fecund fish that often get hammered in places like Cape Cod Canal or off of Northern New Jersey when they aggregate around abundant menhaden schools—but that would only happen if the slot was adopted coastwide.

But, things went south, as they often do at ASMFC, pretty quickly.

Without getting too much into the weeds here, because every state’s fishery is a little different, the 1 fish bag and 28 to 35″ size limit would have resulted in different states taking different reductions. For example, a state like New Jersey, which sits at the center of the species’ migration route, has a large angling constituency, and maintains fairly liberal regulations, could have seen a fishing mortality reduction of up to 46%, while a state like Maine, which hosts a much smaller fishery and sits at the northern end of the striped bass’ range, would have seen a reduction of less than 18%. But overall, if every state implemented the slot limit measure, the coastal reduction would have added up to 18%.

Unfortunately, however, the Commission’s Striped Bass Management Plan allows for “conservation equivalency,” which means that each state may implement their own measures as long as they add up to the reduction the state would have taken under the coastal measure, in this case 28 to 35″.

So, here’s where things went awry with Addendum VI. At the October ASMFC meeting, a Commissioner from New Jersey moved that each state’s conservation equivalency proposals need only reduce that state’s landings by 18%, the intended coastwide reduction, and not by the percentage reduction such state would theoretically take with the coastal slot limit. Strangely enough, it passed, with only New York voting against. It was late in the day when that vote took place, and frankly, I don’t think most of the Commissioners knew what the hell they were voting for.

Of course, by allowing states that otherwise would have taken larger reduction to limit their cuts to 18%, the Management Board essentially ensured that the coastal reduction wouldn’t add up to 18%, and that the Commission would fall short of achieving the goal of Addendum VI. And it sure looks like that’s where we’re headed.

Yes, there were quite a few states who tried to do the “right” thing, and stuck with the 28 to 35″ coastal slot limit, but there were also quite a few who submitted conservation equivalency proposals that range from a 24 to 28″ slot limit from New Jersey (which would of course would result in a lot of mortality on fish that had yet to spawn even once), to a 35″ maximum which would, of course, focus mortality on those larger, older fish the slot was meant to protect.

We should be clear here that not only do many of these conservation equivalency measures not add up to the reduction such states would have taken under the coastal 28 to 35″ slot limit, but, well, a slot-limit is more-or-less meaningless if it isn’t implemented on a coastal level. If a fish smaller than 28″ is protected in NY, only to swim over to NJ to get whacked, then what’s the use? Similarly, if a fish over 35″ is protected only to get killed in another state, well, you get the point. Slot limits are primarily meant to protect those larger more fecund fish, but they won’t and can’t work if those fish are vulnerable as soon as they swim into the waters of another state that hasn’t adopted the same slot.

Getting back to the meeting, while such conservation equivalency proposals were approved by the Technical Committee in January, with some noted concerns about uncertainty and enforcement, they still needed to be approved by the Striped Bass Board. And that leads us to what went down last Tuesday.

Striped Bass Conservation Equivalency Proposals Presented to the Board

Without getting into too much uncomfortable detail, there were several motions, amended motions, substitutes etc. But worthy of note is that the motion to accept all conservation equivalency proposals failed by a big margin, 4 to 12, largely because many states didn’t appear to be comfortable with the some of the proposals (specifically New Jersey’s and Maryland’s), because if such proposals were implemented, it was pretty clear we’d fail to meet the coastwide 18% reduction.

There also was a motion to accept conservation equivalency proposals, but only if they added up to 18% coastwide, and if they didn’t, then all states – even those whose equivalency proposals added up to approximately what their reduction would be if they had gone with the coastwide slot-limit – would need to revert back to the coastal 28 to 35″ measure. Seemed pretty reasonable, but that failed quickly because no one state wanted to be on the losing end because another state wasn’t acting responsibly.

What looked like a breakthrough came when it was suggested that each state narrow down their proposals and tell the board what measures they were most likely to implement, so we could at least get an idea of what sort of coastal reduction we might see.

Things seemed to go smoothly as states narrowed down their proposals and told the board what they were most likely to implement. Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut would go with the coastal measure – one fish at 28 to 35″. Rhode Island said they would keep a different slot size – 32 to 40″ – on the table, but seemed to lean towards the 28 to 35″ slot, acknowledging the benefits to consistency in regulations between states. Connecticut would go with a 28 to 35″ slot. New York would go with the 28 to 35″ slot as well, but wanted the option for a 31″ min size for charter boat operators in eastern Long Island should they want to opt into that program. That part, however, was voted down.

New Jersey actually narrowed down their large list of conservation equivalency options to one at 28 to 35″, but then offered a second proposal, which was not in their original list – one fish with a minimum size of 33″ but no maximum size. And this is when things got ugly. That was voted down because pretty much everyone acknowledged the ineffectiveness of having anglers in NY releasing a 36″ fish, only to have it swim across NY Harbor to get harvested by a New Jersey fisherman. As mentioned, slot limits just don’t work unless there’s some consistency amongst states.

So then, NJ’s commissioners somehow managed to convince the board to allow them to develop another slot limit measure, with a high end of no more than 40″ but with no lower end stipulated, that would achieve an 18% reduction, rather than the 46% reduction they would take under the 28 to 35″ coastal slot. I haven’t seen what they have come up with yet, but from what I’ve heard it will be a 28 to 38″ fish, which is much better than what they could have done. That said, New Jersey probably won’t meet the 46% reduction they would have under the coastal slot limit.

Frankly, I don’t know how they slipped that one through, because their argument was really that, “well Rhode Island has a different slot, so why can’t we?” I would point out that NY, of course, voted against this.

Moving on, Delaware will likely go with the 28 to 35″, or a 28 to 38″ slot. And then… We get to Maryland. What they’ve put together was described by more than one person as “smoke and mirrors”. Their coastal limit will be 28 to 35″, which is good. But what they’ve come up with in the Bay is unlikely to reduce fishing mortality as much as needed.

There will likely be a “no-target” closure in April and March, which is silly as there would be little release mortality in those colder months anyway, and their projected savings from such a closure are likely WAY too high. There will also be a summer closure in July or Aug, which makes sense as this is when discard mortality is highest, but to be truthful a no-target provision is more-or-less unenforceable, so it’s doubtful this will do much. There will be a 19″ minimum size limit and one fish bag for private-boat and shore-based anglers for most of the year, and a 35″ minimum during the trophy season. Charter and party boat anglers will share the trophy season with them, but will get two fish per day, both over 19″ but with only one over 28″. For the rest of the open season.

It seems improbable that any of this will actually add up to a significant reduction in fishing mortality, but we could be wrong. I suppose we’ll see.

All of this considered, Maryland, like New Jersey, is quite good at getting its way despite what often seem like unreasonable proposals. Its measures were approved, but not by consensus. There were certainly states that voted against it.

And then there’s VA, who will go 28 to 36″ in the ocean and 20 to 36″ in the Bay.

Accountability

Lastly, there was a discussion on accountability. There seemed to be ample awareness around the table that some states were putting forth conservation equivalency proposals that were intended to maximize harvest in their states, while not necessarily contributing to the rebuilding of striped bass populations.

There was a motion to review the conservation equivalency measures after a year to determine if they were working, and require states to make adjustments. But a discussion ensued about timelines, data accuracy, paybacks etc. that led the board to agree that, technically, it would be very difficult to assess and determine effects of such regulations based on the limitations of the recreational harvest data and the timing of when such data is released. And so, it was voted down.

Takeaways

While we would have liked to have seen the ecological reference points for menhaden voted on and put into play at this meeting, it’s not terrible that we’re waiting until May to do this. It will be interesting to see how bluefish, weakfish and spiny dogfish affect the model.

With striped bass? Well, it was an ugly process, which clearly exposed some malignant problems with the way the Commission works. In particular, how a few self-interested states can screw-the-pooch for everyone else.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that Addendum VI will fall short of its goal of a a full 18% reduction on a coastwide basis. That said, I also don’t think we’ll be as far off the mark as I had expected we’d be coming into that meeting. I fully expected New Jersey to get everything it wanted, and for other states to choose more risky conservation equivalency proposals. Surprisingly enough, that didn’t really happen.

What stood out was that Commissioners seem to be fed up with states like New Jersey and Maryland, which clearly sought to maximize harvest under the auspices of conservation equivalency, and seem to care little about rebuilding striped bass.

Amendment 7 to the Striped Bass Management plan will almost certainly be initiated at the May meeting, and it’s highly likely a full review of the striped bass conservation equivalency program will take place under the umbrella of that Amendment.

I would be surprised if the Commission agreed to get rid of the conservation equivalency program all together, but I’d also be surprised if it didn’t put some real sidebars on the program. And for sure there will be a real discussion about accountability. Most commissioners seemed to agree that if a state’s measures don’t work, and result in overages, then such overages have to be dealt with. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to do this with the current timing and data constraints that we have. And that is exactly the sort of thing that can be worked out in an amendment process, which is likely to take two, or even three, years.

With Amendment 7, it’s already been made clear that there will be immense pressure to tweak biomass reference points to allow for more flexibility—which means a liberalization in harvest. There’s no other way to interpret that than to say that a few states want to move in the goal posts. But given the push back we saw at this meeting, I’m more optimistic that this won’t happen.

However, optimism in this business generally leads to disappointment. So I’m not making any bets.

Stay tuned. For sure, there will be more to report on in the coming months.